Biotech's valley of death ends in Beersheva

Dr. Ron Lahav, Dr. Osnat Ohne, Dr. Sharon Fireman  photo: Dani Machlis

The National Institute for Biotechnology takes an innovative approach to commercializing Ben Gurion University of the Negev's groundbreaking research.

For the past decade, the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN), an intriguing cross between a research institute and a commercial company, has been operating away from the public spotlight, but with a fairly large budget. NIBN's aim is to connect biotechnological research at Ben Gurion University of the Negev with the pharma and biotechnology industry.

NIBN's vision is commercialization of technologies and expansion of biotechnological activity in the Negev through financing for groundbreaking applied research, commercialization of research, and the founding of companies based on technologies for further development. NIBN hopes that this will create more jobs in biotechnology in the Negev, especially for Ben Gurion University graduates. The institute plans to found companies in the Gav Yam Negev Park adjacent to Ben Gurion University. NIBN currently has 24 researchers, 18 of whom are "returning researchers" after studies or work overseas.

Valley of death

Commercializing accumulated intellectual property is a challenge for every scientific academic institution. As is well known, most projects do not reach the proof of concept (POC) stage within the university, which is essential for attracting the interest of the biotechnology industry. This phenomenon is known as "the valley of death" because the gap between the stage at which the university believes that a development is ready for the outside world and the stage at which a commercial company is willing to take it on is fatal to many projects. Every university addresses this problem in a different way. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for example, founded a special venture capital fund for its commercialization company. Tel Aviv University has the Len Blavatnik Center for Drug Discovery (BCDD), which promotes projects in partnership with the researcher and is a partner in a venture capital fund with Indian company Tata, a potential client for the technologies developed. The Weizmann Institute adheres to an older commercialization model, despite its disadvantages.

NIBN is Ben Gurion University's solution for life sciences projects that have yet to reach the POC stage and lack support from the biotechnology industry. "We're not the university's technology transfer company; we're another special arm," says NIBN CEO Dr. Osnat Ohne. "Our goal is to promote technologies coming from the university until they reach the POC stage and are ready for commercialization." She adds, "The industry has its own way of evaluating academic projects. Our aim is to bridge the gaps and to be ready to meet the industry's critical eye, while providing an answer to research questions, taking the industry's standards into account. We want to promote only innovative, special, and groundbreaking projects with commercial potential that can scientifically and commercially impact the market in their field."

NIBN, located on the Ben Gurion University campus, was founded as a joint vision of the university, the state, and the late Edgar de Picciotto, a philanthropist friendly to Israel who lived in Switzerland and was chairperson of Union Bancaire Privée in Geneva. The institute building attracts attention because it stands out in the university's landscape: a transparent building with two layers of glass, as per de Picciotto's request. Each of the three founding partners invested $30 million in the institution over a decade, plus the investment in the building by de Picciotto and the university.

A researcher joining NIBN moves his or her laboratory to the building, together with all of the laboratory staff. NIBN members have access to innovative laboratories, advanced equipment, research financing, and guidance and advice on the project from NIBN's management and team. NIBN's team is composed of people with a background in the pharmaceutical industry who are also familiar with the university, and it is backed by legal support, financial management, and support on intellectual property matters.

NIBN's generous funding enables it to compete with other universities in hiring scientists returning to Israel. "$6 million was invested in buying a special electronic microscope, and we brought back to Israel a leading researcher in the field to manage the microscope unit," Ohne says. "This microscope, the only one of its kind in Israel, serves NIBN and Ben Gurion University researchers, and is also a source of cooperative ventures and provision of services to the industry." Ohne asserts that no compromises are made on the quality of the basic research, which supports the technology, the researcher's reputation, the quality of his or her academic publications, and in the end, the product for the industry.

"Globes": Is NIBN essentially a faculty of the university?

Ohne: "No. It was established as a limited company in 2009. The university owns 56% of NIBN's shares, while de Picciotto's family owns the other 44%. NIBN's vision is that its profits will be reinvested in the institute and promoting research, even though NIBN is officially a limited commercial company."

What is your business model?

"We grant a license for a technology to an investor in whose ability to finance and advance the technology until the product reaches the market we believe. In contrast to a university technology transfer company, we invest money in promoting the research, and we therefore want to achieve better commercialization terms that will reflect that initial investment. In the model, we can grant a development license to a large pharma company adding the research to its line of products, or to an investor who founds a special purpose vehicle for developing the technology, in exchange for shares in the company and royalties from the development."

What remuneration does the researcher receive? In a conventional technology transfer company, under each commercialization agreement, the researcher receives a large share of the revenue, which is divided up between the researcher and his or her laboratory.

"In this respect, we do exactly what the university does. The researcher is paid according to the university rules for commercialization. NIBN's profits are invested in promoting the research."

Cows' intestinal bacteria and the environment

NIBN focuses on several areas: cancer, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, agricultural biotechnology, genetic diseases, metabolic diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases.

"These fields are attracting major interest from the world's largest pharma companies, and we're there in the forefront of innovation, excellence, and basic and applied research that can be of interest to the industry," Ohne says.

NIBN currently has 22 research projects, some of which are in the early stages and some of which have completed POC. A number of the technologies have been successfully commercialized, while others are the subject of commercialization negotiations with pharma companies and incubators.

The research in advanced stages of the commercialization processes includes technology relating to the microbiome of ruminants. The laboratory of Prof. Itzhak Mizrahi found that the microbiome of cows can affect the quality of their milk and the quantity of methane gas that the cows emit. This gas is significant in the greenhouse effect, and is one of the most important agents of the negative effect of the beef and dairy industry on the environment. "We believe that this project will change the dairy production industry and contribute to improving environmental quality and promoting a green environment," Ohne says.

Another research project in the commercialization stages is a discovery by Prof. Angel Porgador and Dr. Roi Gazi. The technology improves the safety profile and side effects of the promising CAR-T cell therapy for cancer by directing the drug to the surroundings of the malignant tumor only, not to healthy tissue. "We're in touch with a leading company in this field that has several active clinical trials," Ohne says.

Porgador and Prof. Alon Monsonego have developed another technology that uses the principles of CAR-T - genetically engineered white blood cells from the immune system for attacking cancer cells, while avoiding other cells. Instead of using this approach to attack cancer cells, however, it is used to help central nerve system cells in a groundbreaking innovative treatment for degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's Disease.

Another advanced research project is by leading researcher Prof. Varda Shoshan-Barmatz, who has succeeded in programming cancer cells to return to a precancerous state. Her treatment is based on denying cancer cells a supply of energy by blocking mitochondria activity - the organelle function in a cell that is responsible for supplying energy. Constantly multiplying cancer cells consume more energy than healthy cells, and are therefore specifically affected by this treatment. Shoshan-Barmatz is leading other research projects at NIBN involving the mitochondria function and failures in its function in immune system and degenerative brain diseases.

NIBN's management team consists of Dr. Ohne,  formerly COO at Tiltan Pharma Ltd., and before that Director Project Leader in Global Innovative R&D at Teva Pharmaceutical Industries for 10 years;  Dr. Sharon Fireman, who joined NIBN as Executive Director of Business Development in December 2018 from Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, where she was Director of Project Management; and Dr. Ron Lahav, who became NIBN’s Executive Director of R&D in September 2017 after fifteen years in the pharmaceutical industry in Canada and Israel.  

The man behind the founding of NIBN

Edgar De Picciotto was born in 1929 in Beirut and died in Switzerland in 2016. He was from an old Portuguese family that migrated to Lebanon following the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula in the fifteenth century. He studied engineering in Lebanon, but emigrated with his family to Switzerland in the 1950s when anti-Semitism increased in Lebanon. He entered private banking in Switzerland with the help of his father-in-law, and founded Union Bancaire Privee (UBP) in 1969.

De Picciotto's investments were innovative. He was one of the pioneers in hedge funds and biotechnology investment. In the early 1990s, he invested in companies like Genentech, Amgen, and Biogen, which became huge. His success with these companies was probably what made him think that biotechnology would be a key to prosperity in the Negev.

He gradually retired after 2000. Following the 2008 economic crisis, however, he again took command of UBP and navigated it through the crisis.

De Picciotto seldom granted press interviews, but in 2004, he described to "Globes" reporter Shlomit Lan a new world in which the US would be more aggressive, liberalism weaker, and Christianity more conservative. He said that the welfare state would cease to exist.

He predicted that capitalism would shed its enlightened wrapping, social gaps would widen, and the rise of Islam would return the US to its old family values in response. "We've gone too far in personal liberty, liberalism, and neglect of traditional values," he said. De Picciotto did not regard this trend as threatening an increase in anti-Semitism. Lan described de Picciotto as quick-witted and sharp, impatient, and blunt, but as someone whose children and Zionist vision aroused deep feelings in him.

"Edgar de Picciotto was a man of vision, a generous donor, and an enthusiastic supporter of Israeli science who believed in promoting and developing biotechnology research at Ben Gurion University and in the Negev," says Ohne. "Edgar joined forces with the university in the mid-1990s. In 2005, he, the university, and the Israeli government signed a commitment 'to support and promote the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev.' Two years later, it was decided that each of the three parties would invest $30 million in founding the NIBN."

NIBN was inaugurated in 2009. When de Picciotto died in Switzerland in 2016, his family's wealth was estimated at $3.6 billion. The family-owned UBP manages $100 billion in capital. Guy de Picciotto, Edgar's son, now runs the bank.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 4, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Dr. Ron Lahav, Dr. Osnat Ohne, Dr. Sharon Fireman  photo: Dani Machlis
Dr. Ron Lahav, Dr. Osnat Ohne, Dr. Sharon Fireman photo: Dani Machlis
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