Allon Therapeutic Inc. – recently acquired by British Columbia company Neuro Discovery Inc. – is one of the many success stories of Ramot.Turning discoveries made in the green ivy-covered walls of Academe into products is a tough job; turning them into green cash is even tougher. But Ramot, the company that is charged with transforming ideas into companies at Tel Aviv University, makes it look easy.
“Grants alone cannot support cutting-edge research and take an innovation to the level at which companies will develop a product for both economic gains and the public good,” Ramot’s CEO Isaac Kohlberg told ISRAEL21c.
So he came up with an ingenious idea to deal with the shortfall of funds needed to hoist an innovation from the lab to the marketplace: an in-house VC fund. The idea has proved so successful, that Harvard University recently scooped up Kohlberg to take on a newly created position – Associate Provost and Chief Technical Development Officer, a post he begins in May, after finishing four years at the helm of Ramot.
“Kohlberg’s appointment signals a renewed effort by the university to make as efficient as possible the transfer of discoveries at Harvard into useable treatment and applications,” said Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman.
Kohlberg established his track record in Israel when he headed the Weizmann Institute of Science’s commercial arm when it made the two big deals that account for its major income – licensing the drug Copaxone (for treating multiple sclerosis) to Teva Pharmaceuticals, and an encryption algorithm that blocks hacker invasion of satellite broadcasts to NDS. He was then recruited by New York University where he pumped up its income from royalties before accepting the position at Tel Aviv University’s Ramot in 2000.
Ramot has a list of available technologies that are on the cusp of commercialization. These technologies are in a wide range of fields – agrotechnology, bioinformatics, diagnostics, engineering, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals.
Picking seven of the ripest “most likely to succeed in the short and long-run” candidates, Kohlberg’s in-house VC approach is helping to get these products over the hump. The projects in the ‘Wing of the Future Technology Partnership’ were carefully screened for their potential marketability and profit. And a year and a half after it was set up, there is no doubt that the VC Fund, has already accelerated the path to market for the fledging start-ups.
A spurt of development, as a result of the funding, is bringing a system for monitoring fluid in the lungs of patients who suffer from heart failure closer to market. The system can also be used when the frequently occurring problem occurs after heart surgery. These patients are at risk of suffering from deterioration in their condition due to lung fluid overload that may lead to costly hospitalizations and even death. A prototype has already been used for initial clinical trials with excellent results, and FDA approval is expected shortly.
“We hope to establish a company in the near future and raise funds for it,” said Dr. Ze’ev Weinfeld, Ramot’s Vice President of Business Development.
An ultra-thin flat battery is another promising innovation. The project is moving along at a fast pace. The inventors have shown that the battery gives a 20-30 fold increase in energy density relative to other microbattery technologies for the same physical area.
Among the nanotechnology discoveries that have received a boost is the work of Professor Rimona Margalit who is using a coating of nanoparticles to enable drug targeting directly to a tumor.
Another partnership project headed by Professor Ehud Gazit focuses on the prevention of amyloid aggregation (build up) in various diseases. Fine, threadlike amyloid fibrils are waxy, translucent substances composed primarily of protein fibers that are deposited in various organs in certain diseases. Curiously, the diseases are unrelated – Alzheimer’s, prion (Mad Cow), and Type II Diabetes.
Gazit and his team stumbled on another discovery while researching amyloids. His team observed the self-assembly formation of short aromatic peptides to form amyloid fibrils, virtual nanotubes.
The researchers succeeded in using the nanotubes to cast silver nanowires. The discovery was published in Science Magazine (April 2003).
The potential uses of the nanotubes and nanowires are many. They can be used as a highly sensitive sensor for detecting biologically and chemically hazardous materials, or for targeting drug delivery. The could also be used as tubing for complex nanofluidic circuits, or as field emitters used in a new generation of flat panel displays, portable computers, and cellular telephones.
“They may also be incorporated in illuminated, battery-operated emergency directional signs where low energy consumption is critical. Tiny and strong, they can be used as Probe Tips for diagnosis in a minute radius in advanced scanning microscopes,” explained Gazit.
Small is best in other fields as well. Green Fuel Cells (GFC), a Partnership spin-off, is getting ready to demonstrate its first prototype, a fuel cell for mobile electronics devices such as PC notebooks and advanced wireless devices. In recent years, electronic devices have become smaller and more powerful. While semiconductor chips have shrunk in size, their computing power has increased by about 3000 percent over the last 30 years. In comparison, battery-powered energy densities have increased a mere 70%.
That may now change with the work of TAU Chemistry Professor Emanuel Peled, a world renowned authority in fuel cells and energy storage devices, who has developed technology that enables the creation of what is, to date, the smallest, longest operating fuel cell for mobile electronic devices. It will also be the cheapest. It operates on non-diluted fuel and uses a membrane, the heart of the fuel cell, priced 100 times lower than existing membranes. The company plans a second equity investment in the coming months.
Weinfeld is also optimistic about other promising Ramot-assisted companies that
have attracted major investments in the last few months.
In one of the largest bio-technology financing deals made by the Canadian province of British Columbia, Neuro Discovery Inc. (previously Neuro Protection Co.) plumped down $18.5 million (in Sept. 2004) to acquire Allon Therapeutic Inc.
TAU Professor Ilana Gozes, founder of Allon, will be the Chief Scientific Officer of the Vancouver-based company. In pre-clinical trials, technology developed by Gozes has shown potent neuro-protective capabilities in a wide range of chronic and acute neuro-degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. Clinical trials are expected to begin this year.
Professor Beka Solomon’s research, inhibiting of AB generation in Alzheimer’s disease, is also gaining speed. A licensing agreement with Wyeth (formerly, American Home Products), one of the largest signed by TAU, holds out hope not only to the investors, but mainly to the victims of the disease and their families.
Investors in Israel are financially committed to products for the treatment of diabetic and pressure ulcers. The chronic wound product market has been a fast-growing global industry over the past decade. In October 2004, the Gilboa and Licht Investment House helped secure investment of about $1 million to speed up the time to bring to the market flagship product of EnzySurge Ltd., a spin-off of TAU research.
“We adapt enzymatic industrial processes to the human body,” said founder, Professor Amihay Freeman, Head of the TAU Institute of Biotechnology. The product: a proprietary device plus enzymatic solutions removes debris and infective agents faster and more effectively than existing solutions. Faster healing of wounds saves time for physicians and nurses, reduces hospitalization time, and with that, cuts costs for the healthcare system.
EnzySurge has completed animal studies that show substantial enhancement and shortening of the time needed for wound healing. Clinical studies have begun at the Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. Leading pharmaceutical companies have already expressed interest in a strategic partnership to develop and market the product.
Two Ramot breakthrough products have been successfully launched in the business world. Civcom – which won the Attendees Choice Award at the National Fiber Optics Engineers Conference two years in a row – was the first optical startup spun out of TAU. It focuses on the development and production of dynamic opto-electronic components and sub-systems, devices that allow customers to upgrade, migrate, and enhance networks quickly, reliably, and economically.
Civcom has developed many firsts in the field – the first ultra-fast solid state optical switch, the world’s first MSA Tunable Compliant Transponder (an optical transmitter/receiver), and the world’s smallest Tunable Optical Dispersion Compensator. Existing TODC units are usually large in size and used as an external component in an optical network system.
“We have managed to reduce [the TODC] to a standard butterfly size, enabling us to integrate it within our 10Gbps tunable transponder. The result is cost effective.” said Yair Itzhar, VP Sales at Civcom.
Funding by eight intrepid VC funds, including Concord Ventures and Pitango VC, helped Civcom break into the market, in 2001, after the market crash and after some companies went belly up and big deals went sour in the fiber optics field. The worst was the pullout of Lucent from its $4.7 billion purchase of the Israeli company, Chromatis.
Professor David Mendlovic, Civcom’s CEO and TAU Professor Associate Professor of Elelctro-Optics, was not deterred: “We have very
unique optical architecture and some novel materials that give us an edge.”
Leading Fiber Optic magazines consistently praise the products. “It has blazing fast
switching speeds” wrote Lightwave about Civcom’s optical switch.
Civcom’s get-in-there-and-run strategy has paid off. The company’s customers are high end telecom equipment makers in Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Asia. All Civcom’s R&D is done in Israel. U.S. headquarters are in Reston, Va., with sales offices in Summit, N.J. The company expects sales to jump as high as 200% this year.
Hopefully, with a big push from the ‘Wing of the Future Technology Partnership’ VC fund, and with Ramot’s expertise in technology transfer, other innovative products to improve our health and the way we live will follow in the near future.