Avi Kremer – ‘What’s so inspirational and what really attracts people to him is his selflessness,’ says Nate Boaz, a Harvard classmate who co-founded Prize4Life.Avichai “Avi” Kremer arrived at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass. three years ago ready to take on the business world. And why not? The Israeli native was a born leader – rising to Israeli army captain, graduating from the Technion and working as a project manager for a high tech defense firm before landing at Harvard.
His first semester, that momentum suddenly hit the brakes. Kremer, now 32, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative illness, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, that destroys muscle control while leaving the mind intact. Given less than five years to live, Kremer fought back in ways that would continue his quest for a cure beyond his lifetime.
While completing his MBA, which he earned this year, he initiated programs and raised millions of dollars for ALS research in Israel and the US; and launched two US companies – Prize4Life and Avi Therapeutics – designed to accelerate a cure and get it to market. Harvard honored him with Dean’s Award for Outstanding Service, while Israeli filmmakers Yoval and Odette Or are making a documentary about his life.
“What’s so inspirational and what really attracts people to him is his selflessness,” says Nate Boaz, a Harvard classmate who co-founded Prize4Life. “He had two choices: go back home to be with family and friends, or fight back. The majority of us would have gone home and done all the things we wanted to do. Avi is giving up all of his time, not for himself, but for all the others who suffer from this horrible disease. You feel like you owe this guy something.”
Because ALS is rare and patients usually die quickly, pharmaceutical companies regard ALS research as a risky investment. At any given time, ALS afflicts more than 350,000 people around the world (including 30,000 in the US). Each year brings 120,000 new cases and 100,000 deaths – only 10 percent of which are inherited – according to the ALS Association in the US and MND (motorneuron disease) Association in the UK.
So the Haifa-born Kremer took matters into his own hands. Shortly after his diagnosis, he enlisted his business school classmates to help raise $150,000 for ALS research. But it wasn’t until his return to Israel the following summer that he rethought his goals in business terms, taking off the fall 2005 semester to put them into effect. Kremer promised funding to researchers who would study ALS, while mobilizing a team of 30 friends to raise funds. The result increased awareness in the disease, raised $2 million and spawned ALS research in six Israeli universities where none existed before.
“All along we viewed ALS research as a product, a service that we’re trying to sell to different kinds of customers: researchers, donors, investors, the public, and the media,” Kremer – too ill to participate in this story – said in an article on the Harvard Business School Website. “Each one has its own incentives and motivations. We showed them that we can create value for everyone through ALS research.”
In June, 2006, he and Boaz launched Prize4Life, a nonprofit that offers cash prizes for novel ALS treatments, and Avi Therapeutics, a for-profit biotech incubator to turn the best of those ideas into commercial ALS drugs. The contests are designed to clear the three main obstacles to a cure – measuring treatment efficacy; establishing a method for rapid testing; and creating a pool of potential drugs to test. So far, they’ve raised $4.5 million for these prizes, the first of which was announced this past May. Five researchers in the US and Europe, chosen from 45 applicants, received $15,000 each for proposals on how to come up with an ALS biomarker – an indicator that measures the effects of treatment.
A second prize is still up for grabs. The $1 Million ALS/MND Biomarker Challenge – launched last November – will pay $1 million for the first validated biomarker submitted. The hope is that this competition will accelerate an ALS cure the way the Ansari X-Prize jumpstarted commercial space travel by awarding $10 million for the first privately funded piloted spacecraft to launch twice in two weeks.
In the next few months, Prize4Life expects to announce another contest for a way to concurrently test how thousands of potential drug compounds will interact with the disease’s newly discovered molecular structure.
“Even if we never award a prize, we will have significantly advanced the awareness of the disease and identified the most difficult problems that need to be solved urgently,” Boaz told ISRAEL21c. “Even if we created a bunch of failures, they’re attempts that now don’t have to be repeated.”
Meanwhile, Kremer, who is now in a wheelchair and using voice-assisted technology, expects to permanently return to Israel this summer.
“I believe there’s a plan, destiny, a calling that I take part in,” Kremer says in the documentary. “My part is to help bring about a cure sooner and take it myself.”