Today foreign companies and investors cannot ignore the enormous potential that Israeli Life Science offers.Two male waiters clad in black take a deep breath to steady their feet before hoisting a huge fruit bowl onto the bar. Onlookers dart to the cherries and watermelon while others content with sipping their martinis on barstools nibble away at sushi.

If it weren’t for the small talk focused on cancer research and cures for diabetes, one could easily imagine Israel’s Fourth Annual Bio-Tech Conference and Exhibition at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv was an exclusive Mediterranean summer party.

Gentlemen in pinstripes from England could be overheard networking with Israeli venture capitalists, while Italian businessmen in twos and threes strolled through the biotech marketplace featuring new Israeli technology and medical advances.

One in three conference registrants came from abroad this year, a fourfold increase from 2004, making it clear that international biotech companies are positioning to invest and collaborate with Israel more than ever before.

“Three years in Israeli biotech terms is a generation,” says Margaret Parton, program manager of the UK-US Bioscience Collaboration Program, back in Israel after a three-year lull. Parton has long established roots in the Israeli biotech community and has worked hand-in-hand with companies like Clal Biotech to help develop joint Israel and UK projects.

Although her new job, focused on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, keeps her posted in Texas, when collaboration potential calls Parton is on a plane following the best science in the world. In Israel, she is most excited about the tissue engineering products that Raphael Gorodesky of Hadassah is developing and hopes that the Israel embassy will present to a stem cell network in London.

On her agenda is finding partners for Framework 6 – a European Union funding body which finances Life Science. Framework 6 contributes to European research by improving integration and coordination of research within Europe and at the same time strengthening the competitiveness of the European economy.

Parton hopes to be a matchmaker in the field of cell therapies and has come to see if Israel, wedged between Europe and the Middle East, will suit the call. “If we want to survive we have to collaborate,” she says, explaining that commercializing biology today relies on multi-disciplines and a lot of equity.

Parton was thrilled to have business back in Israel and noticed that Israeli scientists had lost none of their gusto. “I see that Israelis are getting better at communicating to the outside world,” she told ISRAEL21c. “Today, the bad news is less bad and the good news coming out of Israel is overtaking.”

Other visitors from around the world who came by way of Asia, North America, Africa, Europe and Australia were able to meet executives from Teva Pharmaceuticals, the Weizmann Institute of Science and Hadassah Medical Organization under one roof. Visitors were also able to take stock of fresh Israeli startups like Optimata, Pharmos and Brainstorm, while notable keynote speakers were flown in from institutions like Yale, NASA, Boston University and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“The conference was a sensation!” says Rafi Hostein, CEO of Hadassah’s research and development company, Hadasit, a week after the event concluded. As vice-chair for Biotech 2005, he is aware that Israel biotech is on the upswing and foreigners are coming to take a look.

The first biotech event five years ago generated very little foreign interest, Hostein says, but today foreign companies and investors cannot ignore the enormous potential that Israeli Life Science offers. As participants returned home, Hostein received calls and email from all parts of the world by participants energized by the contacts encountered at the three day event which included a talk by Israel’s Dr. Aaron Ciechanover, Laureate of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

This year, medical devices and traditional biotech areas were combined and brought together around four major health problems: respiratory disease, central nervous system disorders, metabolic disorders and cancer. A significant part of the program was given by an Italian delegation under the heading: Italy and Israel: Natural Partners in the Life Sciences.

It was through an existing relationship to Professor Zvia Agur, founder of Optimata, that Dr. Paolo Baroldi, the VP of corporate drug development at Chiesi Farmaceutici, Italy came to Israel. By the time the delegation approached him in his home country, he had already heard wonderful things about Israeli biotech through Agur.

Baroldi told ISRAEL21c that he came to the event to expand his company’s collaboration horizons.

Chiesi, a mid-sized pharmaceutical company has revenues of about $670 million which puts Baroldi’s executives in a position to invest almost 15 percent of that in new ventures.

“I was absolutely impressed with the overall level of quality and variety of technology that Israeli companies were exposing. Technology spanned from traditional drug development to small molecules at Teva, up to cutting edge biotech initiatives,” he said.

Baroldi was particularly impressed by meetings with Weizmann Institute executives and, upon returning to Italy, began working to find channels of potential business matches in the area of pulmonary drugs.

“Israeli companies are looking to commit themselves to developing potential drugs and are taking part in the risk of this endeavor. This is a fantastic model for medium-sized companies like ours,” he said.

The European consortium of biotechnology incubators, NATIBS, also came to Israel for the first time as the guest of Israel’s Rad BioMed incubator. Fifty European incubator managers and biotech heads were present from France, Germany, Spain and Sweden taking a look as Israel exhibitors displayed their wares in the form of medication, computerized drug discovery and bioinformatics to name a few.

Guillaume Bruleboise, the business development manager at Oncodesign, France, was looking for more clients to grow his cancer testing compounds. Bruleboise believes Israel is a very promising market for his company’s expansion. “People in Israel are reactive, and venture capital is much more active than in Europe,” he said.

Japanese participants included Makoto Sawada, representing Cath Lab, a medical device import company from Japan mainly working with Germany and France. He consults device and technology companies in Israel and was at the event looking out for innovative technology in cardiology.

On the Israeli side, Guy Malchi, the CEO of Optimata was thrilled that he could meet personally with FDA vice-commissioner Murray Lumpkin. Malchi found the foreign input and lecture given by Lumpkin highly relevant to the development process of his startup company.

“Attendance from the outside was impressive,” said Malchi. “I feel there is a change underway in Israel now that we are able to interact directly with investors from abroad on our own turf.”

While Malchi was pleased to have the chance to speak with the FDA, other startup executives were able to brush elbows with top pharmaceutical giants from Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, Infinity and Merck.

This is a big deal for companies which normally have to travel to Europe and the US to vie for such an opportunity. “Last year if a VP from Merck came to Israel it made the country’s headlines,” said Bernard Dichek, publisher of BioIsrael, Israel’s biotech industry news. “This year I am barely able to keep track of foreign delegations sweeping in and out looking for investment potential,” he added.

If foreign interest is an indicator of Israel’s stance in the world biotech marketplace, this year’s Biotech 2005 Conference and Convention has only set the stage for what is yet to come.