Israel: From “Startup” Nation to “Brain” Nation

Israel’s prowess as a high-tech superpower — some say second only to Silicon Valley — has been well-documented. This tiny IT powerhouse has now set its sights on brain technology. Can the “startup” nation become the “brain” nation?

At Israel Brain Technologies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to turning Israel into an international hub of brain technology and related research, this is a riddle we have dedicated ourselves to solving. So, how does a country establish itself as a leading brain-technology cluster?

To our good fortune, many of the factors that made Israel a world leader in high-tech lend themselves to brain technology as well. Israel has one of the highest percentages of skilled technology experts, engineers, and scientists in the world. These, of course, are crucial to building a new, ultra-sophisticated industry. Our military, which relies on technological innovation, risk-taking and leadership building, has a major influence on the country’s entrepreneurial spirit as experienced soldiers shed their uniforms and enter the private sector. Integrating these veterans, full of battle-tested knowhow, into a developing new field is a no-brainer.

Innovative programs initiated by the Israeli government — in particular, the Office of the Chief Scientist’s groundbreaking incubator program, which sparked the local venture capital (VC) industry — contributed to the genesis of Israel’s high-tech ecosystem. The Israeli government needs to continue to innovate in order to promote excellence in fields like nanotechnology, agritech and brain technology. The Ministry of Economy’s NewTech program, for example, has been a key force in supporting Israel’s renowned cleantech industry since 2006. Organizations enjoying partial governmental support, such as the Israel National Nanotechnology Initiative, have also been successful in bringing fledgling industries to the world stage.

One often-overlooked factor in the startup nation’s success is its multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. Ironically, in order to achieve business success in a particular industry, it is crucial to bring together people from a variety of different industries and areas of expertise to generate new ideas and approaches, and then collaborate closely. This is particularly true in the case of brain technology, which demands expertise from almost every field — including the obvious ones such as medicine, biology, and psychology but also from less-obvious ones like engineering, computer science, electronics, and physics.

This collaborative effort should also include joining university researchers with entrepreneurs, investors and executives from life science and technology multinationals. For example,
researchers may be working on a remarkable breakthrough, but they won’t necessarily have any idea how to size that idea or to get it on the path to commercialization. And, even if they do, they will certainly need investors and strategic partnerships to make their vision a reality.

In brain technology, where research is often confined to the ivory tower, this collaborative approach couldn’t be more crucial. Israel Brain Technologies (IBT) was inspired by Israeli president Shimon Peres, a longtime evangelist for innovation and the visionary behind the country’s nanotechnology initiative. In 2011, Peres identified brain technology as a key industry for the future, with a huge potential to change the world.

The distinguished McKinsey consulting firm wrote a comprehensive report for the president with concrete suggestions on how to bring his vision to life. Called “Meeting the Mind: The Neurotechnology Revolution,” the report concluded that one of the things missing from our brain-tech ecosystem is connectivity — connecting the dots among all the different players in the space (biologists, engineers, computer scientists, clinicians, investors, and health-system execs) to make it a commercial reality.

IBT has adopted a number of recommendations from the report to help turn the president’s vision into reality. The pinnacle of our activities have included the first-annual BrainTech Israel 2013 Conference. This international event brought together many of the world’s most prominent figures in the brain-tech industry, including several Nobel laureates.

The highlight of this conference was the announcement of BrainGate as the winner of our $1,000,000 BRAIN (Breakthrough Research and Innovation in Neurotechnology) Prize competition. BrainGate demonstrated the first human use of an implanted neural sensor and neural interface system to control robotic and prosthetic arms in three-dimensional space. BrainGate wowed the audience with a video of a woman with tetraplegia who served herself a cup of coffee using its technology nearly 15 years after she suffered from a debilitating stroke. The event also showcased Israel’s young neurotechnology industry, including companies such as InSightec, ElMindA, NanoRetina, and Brainsway, to name a few.

We promoted an innovative and collaborative community by organizing frequent roundtable discussions in multidisciplinary forums focusing on different areas of brain technology — e.g., medical issues such as Alzheimer’s and more purely tech-related issues such as brain-machine interface, though the lines between these two fields are becoming blurrier. The goal is that new ideas and projects will be born out of these discussions and brainstorming sessions.

We met with international delegations to increase collaborations between the Israeli neurotechnology ecosystem and its counterparts around the world. In late 2013, IBT founder and chairman Dr. Rafi Gidron signed an agreement of understanding with U.S. Congressmen Steve Israel and Chaka Fattah — Congress’ leading proponents for brain research — to establish cooperative initiatives between IBT and such distinguished institutions as the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, the Feinstein Institute and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Other activities included matchmaking between Israeli startups and international investors, VC’s and multinationals, and lobbying for more government funding for brain technology R&D.

One of our major challenges is to convince investors and philanthropists of the great importance and potential in the brain-technology space, especially in the very early stages of development — where VC funding is rarely available.

We are also working toward strengthening our collaboration with the Israeli government and forging partnerships with more official institutions abroad. We are constantly looking for creative new ways to bring brain-technology breakthroughs to fruition, with the goal of bringing them to the hundreds of millions patients worldwide who need them, and making Israel an international hub for brain technology. We welcome all those who share in this vision or who are interested in joining forces to offer their ideas and creative energy.

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