Yissum CEO seeks to connect academia and industry

Yaron Daniely Photo: Yonatan Bloom

Dr. Yaron Daniely reveals that Yissum gave Hebrew University over NIS 800 million in research funds, royalties, and shares over the past decade.

Dr. Yaron Daniely made an unusual career change in June: he was appointed to head Yissum Technology Transfer Company of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He came to Yissum from Alcobra, which ended its existence as an independent company a month ago by merging with US company Arcturus, following a challenging journey. Daniely led Alcobra from almost its first day. Alcobra tried to develop a drug for attention and concentration disorders, rejected an offer to invest in it by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. (NYSE: TEVA; TASE: TEVA), and held a successful Nasdaq IPO at a time when the US capital market was unhospitable to new companies. Daniely helped Alcobra to raise tens of millions of dollars, and rescued it from a crisis that ensued when its human clinical trial failed. The company later conducted another clinical trial that also failed, at which point its investors began to express doubt about its future. Following the crisis, activist investors entered the company in the hope of merging it with other activity, which indeed occurred. Daniely chose not to wait for the results. He remained a director in Alcobra until the merger was completed, but at the same time left the public company, finding a new job in the niche between higher education and industry. The man he replaced at Yissum, Yaacov Michlin, went in the other direction, becoming CEO of public company Brainsway Ltd. (TASE:BRIN).

"I regret nothing," Daniely told "Globes" in his first interview since leaving Alcobra. "I'm proud of the path we followed. I think that the final result does not reflect any error or failure in the company; it is typical of the medical sector, in which you either succeed or fail.

"I hesitated before joining Yissum," Daniely admits. "On the one hand, the long record of the existing industry of Israeli commercialization companies arouses great respect. On the other hand, I feel that it has a very specific organizational culture, and a very set concept of how a commercialization process should look, and that is not necessarily the only possible way. Over the years, the company has been managed by people with a legal background and a slight background in business, but it's unusual for someone to come with scientific and technological knowledge who is also a businessman." Daniely has a PhD in biochemistry from the New York University School of Medicine and an MBA from Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Before joining Alcobra, he was president and CEO of NanoCyte and VP business development at Gamida Cell.

"When I considered the job, someone I know told me, 'You're crazy. Changing Yissum is impossible, or almost impossible,' but I think that as someone coming from outside this world, but with an open mind, this job falls exactly between the fields that I'm attracted to. There's a great opportunity here to hop on a train that is full of resources and ability, but has not yet reached the stars. It's a freight train traveling on a given track, although the destination is unknown, not a small fast electric car that can easily change direction.

"Now I'll introduce a little kitsch," Daniely warns, going on to say, "When I arrived at the meeting with outgoing Hebrew University president Menachem Ben-Sasson, I saw that he had a portrait of Albert Einstein in his room. I also had a poster like that in my room. I felt that it closed a circle: 15 years in higher education, followed by 15 years in industry. That may have been what led me to this moment, when I can connect higher education to industry."

Daniely reveals that Yissum gave Hebrew University over NIS 800 million in research funds, royalties, and shares and securities over the past decade. He says that the scientists understand business quite well. "They manage laboratories, have to obtain a budget, and manage resources and teams. When you come to this conversation with recognition of the importance of higher education, they are very happy to listen to the business aspect. I began my job in June with sky-high expectations, and it has met all my expectations so far."

"Globes": If that is the case, why do you want to revolutionize the company?

Daniely: "Yissum is the third commercialization company in human history. Yeda R&D Company Ltd., the technology transfer arm of the Weizmann Institute of Science, was the second, and the University of Wisconsin in the US was the first. The company has had huge successes: two blockbuster drugs (Doxil for treatment of cancer and Exelon for treatment of Alzheimer's Disease), a seeds industry with sales all around the world (for example, cherry tomatoes were created in Hebrew University's Faculty of Agriculture), and Mobileye.

"This world, however, underwent a change 15 years ago. Up until then, commercialization companies made most of their money from drugs commercialized in the early stages, after which they provided a living for many years. Today, however, biotech technologies are not 'molecules' that can simply be sold to a large company that will develop them and pay royalties. Look at Neuroderm(Nasdaq:NDRM) and Kite Pharma. These companies are developing technologies that go beyond a molecule. I still think that many molecules will come from Yissum. I'm willing to bet money on it, but it's going to be more and more difficult. Stanford University's revenue from royalties dropped from $100 million a year to $35 million a year because one patent expired.

"On the other hand, all of the world's companies are relying more and more on technologies from the university. Take Mobileye for an example - when was an auto industry technology ever based on an invention from higher education?"

Yissum previously received shares in Mobileye, which were sold this year to Intel - the biggest-ever Israeli exit. Following the sale, a dispute emerged between Yissum and Prof. Amnon Shashua, one of Mobileye's two founders, concerning the rights in the company due to Hebrew University. "I'm not familiar with the particulars of the agreement or the dispute between the parties," Daniely says, "but it's certainly a good example of a case in which the lack of a clear product for which the university grants a license, such as a specific molecule in the case of the drug industry, makes it it more difficult to link the university's contribution to the invention to sales volume, and using royalties is not the right method. A better method is for the university to receive some of the shares in the company received by the researcher.

How do you manage a commercialization company after the blockbusters and royalties?

"The situation in the life sciences has made our task less easy, while we're still not sure how to do commercialization in the other industries. In this new world, the scientists transferring their knowledge to companies don't always register a patent for it or maintain large laboratories, and the knowledge in these fields can also develop outside the universities. Other commercialization companies aren't my only competitors. I regard every cab driver who tells me about his startup as competition. You never know when the next Mark Zuckerberg will be your driver; you have to listen to everything."

How does this affect your work?

"It has two very critical consequences that were obvious to me from my first day here. One is that that there is a historical concept that every protection for intellectual property has to be done without compromises. It's better to keep 10 molecules in mothballs in a can than to let one molecule escape without a patent. In contrast to us, places like MIT and Stanford, which came to the game later in the day, realized that the technology had to be pushed out, even if an immediate price had to be paid, because the value created would pay off ten-fold - promoting versus keeping.

"Compared with other commercialization companies in Israel, Hebrew University was always relatively open to industry. We have a high-tech park and close cooperation with Hadassah Medical Center, the Veterinary Hospital at Beit Dagan, and the agricultural industry. We have invited entrepreneurs to come to the university once a week to work with researchers in their fields, and in completely different fields. I don't see us at all as an ivory tower.

"I know that it's different for other commercialization companies. They don't want too symbiotic a connection with industry. Weizmann Institute is one example, but it's appropriate for them, because they're a very special institute."

Don't you think that too close a connection with commercial companies will change the character of research and detract from basic research?

"I come from the US, which respects the individual. I don't want the university to regulate the researcher's connection with industry. I trust our researchers, whose internal motivation will make them the best researchers in the world, while their science can be applied. That's what happened with Prof. Shlomo Magdassi in nano-technology and 3D printing, and with Prof. Oded Shoseyov in agriculture. He is a leading researcher who also thinks all day about startups, and one thing doesn't interfere with the other."

Another change that Daniely is referring to involves the function of the employees in a commercialization company. "In the classic model, one person works on the invention from cradle to grave, from patent registration to business development to negotiations, the deal, and the relationship. What happens in the end is that people were drawn into the stage of deals and negotiations, instead of actively pursuing innovation. The innovation came from researchers taking ideas one step further, while the ideal work of a commercialization company is to also get technology from researchers unable to take ideas one step further." Daniely is currently founding a think tank at Yissum that will include important leaders from various sectors, who will specify the industry's needs. "I want 20% of our innovation to come from innovation we actively create on the basis of a list of these needs," he says.

In order to obtain more initiated innovation, Daniely has changed the definition of the work of Yissum's employees, some of whom will now deal with early stages, others only with deals, and still others exclusively with management of relations after a deal is signed. "Everyone is happy, because each of them was especially good at a single aspect of the work and enjoyed it the most," Daniely explains.

Still another change is working with relatively uniform and more transparent contracts. "I tell all of them, 'I'm not a lawyer,' and everyone relaxes. Yissum signs 650 agreements a year, including 100 licensing agreements. That's almost two products a week. I more or less know the industry standard, so why not offer a standard agreement? It's more transparent, fairer, and more efficient," Daniely declares.

An agreement to rescue Hebrew University from its NIS 700 million debt was announced today. Is Yissum another solution for reducing the university's debt and enabling it to continue? Do you feel that this is the task you have been given?

"Yissum's revenue can help the university, but this is a byproduct, and certainly not our purpose. We want to generate revenue in order to commercialize additional technologies."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on October 18, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

Yaron Daniely Photo: Yonatan Bloom
Yaron Daniely Photo: Yonatan Bloom
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