Abigail Klein Leichman
April 1, 2010, Updated August 31, 2014
Martin Gerstel outside his Jerusalem home. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Martin Gerstel jokes that the highlight of his business career occurred before it even started.

As the top graduate of Stanford University’s MBA program in 1968, Gerstel got his photo on the cover of Business Week.

Ironically, he wasn’t even planning to go into business. He had been accepted to a PhD program at Stanford and intended to teach.

But then he met Alex Zaffaroni, then president of Syntex, developer of the birth control pill. Zaffaroni enticed him to help found ALZA, a new company that was poised to revolutionize the way drugs were administered.

“I stayed at ALZA for 25 years and was CEO for most of it, and it was a fantastic experience,” says Gerstel during an interview with ISRAEL21c in his Jerusalem home. The company invented transdermal patches and other mechanisms for controlled drug delivery that are in wide use today. “A few years after I left, ALZA was sold to Johnson & Johnson for $14 billion. But we’d almost gone bankrupt twice along the way.”

Staying power that pays off

That experience gave Gerstel the fortitude to stick out 12 lean years at Compugen, the Israeli company he joined as chairman in 1997. Just last year, Compugen’s unique computer-based platforms for predictive drug discovery finally gained recognition in the industry, resulting in collaborations with pharmaceutical giants such as Pfizer, Bayer and Merck Serono.

At Compugen, 40 experimental and theoretical biologists are using predictive models of life at the basic molecular level to create a paradigm shift in the way drug and diagnostic products are discovered. Gerstel is optimistic that this endeavor “can be the beginning of a leading position for Israel in worldwide drug and diagnostic discovery and that we can make a real impact in this country.”

Though he never became a full-time educator, Gerstel had brief teaching stints that profoundly affected his future. “You only know something when you teach it,” he asserts.

As a bright and athletic high school senior in Norwalk, Conn., Gerstel took over his math class when the teacher had hepatitis. That attracted the attention of the superintendent of schools, who helped Gerstel to win a full scholarship to Yale. He graduated in 1964 with a B.S. in engineering.

During his second year at Stanford, Gerstel was a teaching assistant for an accounting professor, who recommended him to Zaffaroni.

A weekend jaunt leads to a life change

While he was in Iran in 1977 trying unsuccessfully to raise capital for ALZA, Gerstel took a quick jaunt to Israel. “I came for a weekend and had an amazing emotional experience even though I knew almost nothing about the country,” he recounts.

On a second weekend trip, he met his wife-to-be – Shoshana, a physical therapist at Hadassah Hospital. They wed in 1982 and lived in California until ALZA was on firm footing in 1994. When the couple moved to Israel, Gerstel became a consultant to Israeli life sciences start-ups and taught a popular business and economics class at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, where he had been on the board of governors for years.

Gerstel is also chairman of two Compugen affiliates, Evogene located just south of Tel Aviv in Rehovot – which recently closed a $100 million collaboration with Monsanto – and Keddem Bioscience, a start-up that “could revolutionize pharmaceutical chemistry.”

In addition, Gerstel co-founded Itamar Medical, a medical devices manufacturer in Caesarea, midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, and is involved with technology transfer and licensing activities at both Weizmann Institute of Science and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“My retirement has been very different than I imagined,” he muses with a smile. “Retirement” has translated into holding down several full-time jobs and keeping up with an 11-year-old son born many years into his parents’ marriage. “I guess this is my excuse for never learning Hebrew,” he jokes.

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