Local Israel

Breathing new life into Jerusalem

If the director of BioJerusalem has her way, Israel’s political and spiritual capital may yet become a major center of biotech as well.

Shaare Zedek Medical Center
Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem
Jerusalem is known as the nation’s political and spiritual capital, its largest city and a holy site of great significance to the three monotheistic religions. However, if Chen Levin, director of BioJerusalem, has her way, a new jewel will be added to the city’s crown: the title of world leader in biotechnology.

According to Levin, who is spearheading the group’s program to attract biotechnology companies to Jerusalem, the city is already well on its way to realizing her dream.

“A substantial infrastructure for a major biotech industry in Jerusalem is already in place,” she says. “Three of the city’s [institutions] – the Hebrew University, Shaare Zedek Medical Center and Hadassah Medical Center – are responsible for half of the substantial biotechnology research done in Israel.”

Not to mention the fact that the Hebrew University is 12th in the world in biotech patents, meaning that a substantial infrastructure for a major biotech industry in Jerusalem is already in place.

There are already dozens of Israeli companies throughout the city, and its new BioMed Park in Ein Kerem is the country’s first technology park devoted to medical devices and biotech companies.

BioJerusalem is the product of years of effort by the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), an organization that has worked to develop both physical and economic infrastructure in the city. Quoting Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Levin, who has a background in marketing and life sciences, and helped to establish the only biotech incubator in Israel, says that the JDA “is considered the business development arm of the Jerusalem Municipality.”

Much of the JDA’s budget comes from the government, as the Knesset passed a number of laws dedicated to enhancing the city’s status as Israel’s capital.

Biotechnology is “a natural” for Jerusalem, Levin says.

“Over 1,800 students graduate from life sciences programs at Jerusalem universities each year, and the city also has the highest number of life sciences PhD students in Israel.”

The JDA has identified biotechnology as one of three areas in which Jerusalem can lead the country, she continues – the other two being tourism and new media.

“Jerusalem is one of Israel’s poorest cities, so the students and graduates in the biotech program are a valuable human resource for the city,” she adds. “We want to make sure there are enough jobs for those entering the field each year, so that we can ensure they remain in the city.”

So far, the effort has been a success; there are currently 100 life sciences companies in Jerusalem employing more than 32,000 people – almost 12 percent of the city’s workforce – with companies largely focused on development of therapeutics in the fields of oncology, immune systemrelated diseases, neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular problems, infectious diseases and orthopedics.

Jerusalem companies are also leaders in several of the most lucrative and promising life sciences fields, such as brain research and regenerative medicine, particularly stem cell research and treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Among the tools that BioJerusalem has at its disposal are monetary incentives,and with Jerusalem’s status as a top area for development, the incentives ensure that companies that relocate or open shop there receive generous grants and tax breaks from the national government and the municipality.

Companies may receive between NIS 600,000 and NIS 2.4 million in grants.

BioJerusalem also offers stipends and assistance to employees of biotech companies to help them settle in the city, and additional aid is available, such as grants from the Chief Scientist’s Office, Levin says.

Among the program’s greatest successes so far has been the development of two major life sciences products by companies that BioJerusalem worked with to open labs in the city. The products, which generate some $1.6 billion in annual sales for their manufacturers, are Exelon, developed by Hebrew University and Novartis for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, and Doxil, developed by Hebrew University, Johnson & Johnson and Schering-Plough for the treatment of cancer.

In late 2005, the organization implemented a five-year plan encompassing the incentives, with the Knesset allocating money specifically to encouraging biotechnology firms to do business in Jerusalem. That plan is set to end in 2011, but Levin believes that a new plan – even more comprehensive than the first – will take its place.

BioJerusalem has big plans for the new injections of Knesset cash, she said, if and when they are approved. The subsidized lab that it plans to build at the new BioMed Park, for example, will be a major draw for fledgling biotechnology startups.

“Lab space and time is usually very hard to come by, and very expensive,” Levin explains. “The establishment of a lab with space they can rent out at reasonable prices will be a major draw for biotech companies.”

Initially, a 2,000-sq.-m. lab is to be built, which will later be expanded to 5,000 sq.m.

Innovative ideas like that, Chen is convinced, will ensure that Jerusalem remains not only the center of Jewish life – but will eventually become a world-class center of life sciences as well.


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