An Israeli with a vision

Uzia Galil: I believe we can be the pilot for the world.When veteran entrepreneur Uzia Galil opened the Galil Center for Medical Informatics and Telemedicine at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in 1999, he was one of the first people …

Uzia Galil: I believe we can be the pilot for the world.When veteran entrepreneur Uzia Galil opened the Galil Center for Medical Informatics and Telemedicine at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in 1999, he was one of the first people in the world to recognize the significance of this area of medicine.

“We were probably the pioneers,” says Galil, who is widely recognized as the founding father of Israel’s high-tech industry. As a result of his perspicacity, today Israel has become a leading player in this field, and looks set to become one of the first nations in the world to introduce an electronic health record for every citizen.

Galil cannot begin to stress how important this development is. “An electronic medical record is absolutely necessary and can dramatically help doctors make the right diagnoses, give the right drugs, and give the most advanced treatments available,” Galil told ISRAEL21c. “It can reduce mistakes substantially because doctors will have each patient’s full medical history from the moment they were born.”

The idea of an electronic health record, which allows doctors access to updated documentation of every medical test or treatment a patient has undergone, is becoming increasingly popular worldwide. The United Kingdom has committed $8 billion in funds to introduce such a system to England, while President George Bush has also announced that in the next 10 years every person in the US will have access to an electronic medical record.

In Israel, plans to introduce a health record are already well advanced, and all the relevant bodies, including the the health ministry, other government bodies and the Israel Defense Forces, have agreed to cooperate. There are already a number of Israeli companies working in this field, including dbMotion, which was set up in 1996, and start-up Global Medical Networks.

“This is one of the cases where being a small country is a big advantage,” says Galil. “I believe we can be the pilot for the world. We can go to the US and to Europe and say, ‘look at us, see what we have done’.”

When Galil gets enthusiastic about a topic, it is worthwhile listening. Since he first set up Haifa-based Elron Electronic Industries in 1962, this canny and impeccably-mannered man has dominated the Israeli high-tech industry with an unusual combination of charm and strength. Now at 79, with a head of white hair, and dark eyebrows, he walks, talks, and looks like a much younger man. He is as well-dressed and charismatic as ever, and his excitement with new technology is as much in evidence today, as it was in the past.

Galil has always been one of the first entrepreneurs to adopt new innovations, and he is not going to let age change that picture. Aside from the Galil Center, he is also president and CEO of Uzia Initiatives and Management (UIM), and is chairman of the board at the consumer electronics company Zoran, and a director at Partner Communications, Orbotech and NetManage. Galil says that today he works as many, if not more, hours than he did when he was running the Elron empire.

Born in Romania in 1925, Galil is a graduate of the Technion in Israel and Purdue University in the US. In 1954 he returned to Israel after working for a stint in R&D at Motorola, determined to turn the remarkable wealth of research he discovered in Israel’s scientific establishments into an industry of money-making companies. It seemed an impossible dream. Israel then was just 15 years old and its economy was dominated by oranges and defense. There was no high-tech industry, only a great deal of R&D.

Galil founded Elron with $160,000 in financing from the Discount Investment Corporation and Rockerfeller Venture Fund. The company began producing a range of electronic products, and after five years began to diversify, spinning off segments of the company into new independent entities each focused on specific markets. Elbit, a specialist in defense and communications systems, was the first spin-off, and Elscint, which focused on advanced computerized imaging systems, followed soon after.

In 1971, Elron became a high-tech holding company and operations moved to subsidiaries. The following year, Elscint became the first Israeli high-tech company to go public in the US, a move that many Elron subsidiaries have since taken. Companies from the Elron stable include Elbit Systems, Given Imaging, Partner Communcations, Zoran, Orbotech, NetManage, and ChipX.

In 1999, after 37 years in the business, Galil announced that he was retiring from his post as president and CEO of Elron, and passed the reigns to Ami Erel, who later appointed Doron Birger to the post. Even then, Galil made it clear that this was not retirement, merely an opportunity to do something else.

Galil’s interest in medical informatics and telemedicine came as a natural outgrowth of his previous work at Elron. “I looked at this whole thing from a patient’s perspective, and realized that they do not always get the best of the knowledge, tools, and information that are now available,” he says. “I wanted to find a way to give patients the best treatment at all times.”

He set up the Galil Center at the Technion, where he served as chairman of the board for over a decade,in order to create a dialogue between people working in the cutting edge of medicine and information technology. His goal was to help these people bridge the gap between the two different sciences, and come together to create the best possible treatment for patients. “I wanted to help create a new breed of physicians who would have a clear understanding of what IT can do for health care,” says Galil.

Telemedicine, which is defined as the practice of medicine over distance using telecommunications, is one area where these two sciences are clearly working together, enabling health care providers in one location to take care of a patient in another. Medical informatics is the scientific field that deals with the storage, retrieval and use of biomedical information, data, and knowledge for problem solving and decision making. Both sectors offer tremendous benefits to society. By 2010, industry research company, Waterford Telemedicine Partners, estimates that telemedicine will account for 15% of all healthcare spending in the US.

The center, which has received financial backing also from Elron and the Technion, offers funding for basic research programs, and has so far given support for a range of projects on teledentistry, telepsychiatry, diabetes, prenatal ultrasound diagnosis, telecardiology, and home care of multiple sclerosis patients. It has also given support to telesurgery projects, teleteaching programs, web-based video teleconferencing for speech therapy, and patient record systems.

In addition, the center funds symposiums and conferences on the subject, and runs academic courses in telehealth and medical informatics. Eventually, these courses are expected to become a required part of the curriculum in order to familiarize new physicians and scientists with the field of telemedicine.

Aside from the center, Galil is also heavily involved in his own venture UIM, which was set up to give marketing, management, and fund-raising support to young start-up companies in their first few difficult years. When Galil set up this company, the Internet was booming. A year later the bubble burst, and a number of the e-commerce companies Galil was working with went bust. Galil admits it was a difficult period, but in the wake of this, he became increasingly involved in the growing field of telecommunications, medical informatics, and electronic consumer goods.

In 2001, UIM signed an agreement with Hutchison Whampoa, -the largest shareholder in Partner, to bring new technologies to the Hong Kong company. In the wake of this, UIM has connected a number of companies to i-Tech, a division of Harbour Ring of China, a subsidiary of Hutchison – Whampoa. The best example is VKB, a four-year-old Jerusalem start-up that has developed an innovative virtual keyboard.

“There’s a great deal of talent in Israel,” says Galil. “People here are developing very original advanced technology, not just in the fields of defense or medicine, but also in telecommunications and electronic consumer goods. I believe these fields will offer major opportunities in the future.”

Galil also believes that the Israeli high-tech industry has matured significantly in the last decade. “Today, people recognize that R&D is not enough by itself,” he explains. “We have better managers, better service, and a much more dramatic awareness of marketing needs. If I compare Israel to Silicon Valley or Europe, I think Israel has advanced at a higher rate during this period than either of these alternative locations. Israeli companies today are very well regarded, and there are some areas like homeland security, biotech, and medical devices, where everyone recognizes that Israel has the advantage.”

Galil still enjoys his work. “It’s like starting all over again, except that this time I am starting from a position of experience,” he says with a smile. “All my life I have tried to focus on my mistakes and to learn from them.”

Has he achieved everything he set out to do? “I’m the kind of person who could never say that I have done enough,” admits Galil. “Through Elron, I’ve built 25-30 major companies, but there’s a lot more to do. I can recognize the things I have achieved, but look at how much more there is to accomplish. The rate of change in science and technology is growing faster and faster every day. Yesterday has already gone. Tomorrow is the future,” adds Galil, with a shrug. “I’m always looking ahead.”

About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.