You may have never heard of them, but there are more than a hundred biotechnology startup companies active in Jerusalem. It all started in 1988, when the Israeli government established the Jerusalem Development Authority, a statutory corporation committed to promoting the economic development of Jerusalem. Among the most thriving economic engines in the Israeli capital, the JDA has been attracted to the growing biomedical industry – a result of a consolidated bridging system between the Hebrew University, Hadassah and Shaarei Tzedek hospitals. On those bridges were founded the aforementioned start-ups, which work daily to discover and create new drugs, as well as on producing new medical devices for the diagnosis and cure of several diseases.
“There is no other city in Israel that boasts all these advantages in one place; this strong link between the academia and the medical field is unique,” said Shai Melcer, executive director of BioJerusalem, a JDA initiative established in 2008.
BioJerusalem aims at developing the strong life sciences cluster and supporting new companies that operate in Jerusalem.
We are sitting at Café Haivrit, on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A short walk from here is the High-Tech Village, a facility within the university campus where at least 30 high-tech and biomedical start-ups operate. Many other companies operate at the Bio Park in the Ein Kerem campus, next to Hadassah University Hospital.
MEDICAL DEVICE production is one of the most thriving fields. For instance, Brainsway, a company established in 2003, produces a magnetic stimulator for the treatment of brain disorders, such as depression, compulsion and addiction. “We invented different electromagnetic coils that excite and ultimately alter networks of neurons,” explained Dr. Abraham Zangen, neurobiological consultant of the company. “This procedure usually leads to problematic side effects, such as loss of memory and the need to use total anesthesia, but we solved them by applying a more subtle and delicate stimulation.”
The technology is now being sold around the world, from the United States to the Philippines.
HIL Applied Medical produces a medical device for cancer radiation therapy. Despite the positive effects of the treatment, only three percent of cancer patients receive it in the United States, due to the high cost and large size of the technology. “It takes a billion dollars to build one of these facilities,” said Sagi Brink-Danan, general manager. “With our technology, we aim at breaking this barrier and shrinking the sizes of the devices, making it widely accessible.”
Regarding diagnostics companies, Sight Diagnostics has developed a new tool for malaria diagnosis.
The product, called Parasight, takes two minutes to diagnose the disease from one blood sample.
“Only this year, between five and 10 new biomedical startups were established in Jerusalem,” said Melcer. Despite the fact that the term “start-up” usually refers to new companies, in the medical field companies can keep such status for over 10 years. “It’s a long-term investment, especially in the pharmaceutical field,” said Melcer.
If the industry is so vibrant and thriving, why is it so silent? The answer is very simple. Unlike companies in other fields, most biotechnology start-ups are not active on social media. According to Itzik Yarkoni, founder and director of Bomah, a branding company based in Jerusalem, only a third of these companies run a social media account. “We’re not on social media,” said Brink-Danan of HIL Applied Medical.
“We should do it, but we haven’t done it yet.”
Most biomedical companies consider themselves to be part of a business-to-business industry, explained Melcer.
“Pharmaceutical companies, for instance, have the long-term goal of reaching other big pharmaceutical companies that put their products on the market.”
Yarkoni, however, pointed out that companies can use social media to reach other pharmaceutical companies. Also within the medical device arena, companies could take advantage of social media to market their products and reach the public.
Brainsway is one of the very few examples of Israeli biotech companies systematically active on social media.
“Our technology could benefit anybody around the world, so we aim at a global market,” said company COO Ronen Segal. “We target physicians, but also the patients, because today physicians are not the only decision-makers anymore. Then we target fellow neuroscience researchers.” Brainsway also has a Facebook page directed specifically at the Philippines market.
The right message for the right audience is often the key for a successful social media campaign. “Today social media allow companies to track the people that are interested in a specific disease or cure,” said Yarkoni. “Mapping the audience can save a lot of time and energy. Social media can be useful for branding and crowdfunding; they have a huge potential for biotechnological companies, too.” According to Melcer, moreover, the future of biotechnology includes the new field of digital health, which is more associated with social media than pharma or medical devices.
Find the right tools, test them, added Yarkoni. “It’s easy, fun, and mostly free.”The writer was born and raised in Italy, he studied in the States for one year and is currently living in Tel Aviv, where he studies at Bar-Ilan University and works as a freelance writer. His works, both in English and Italian, have been published in The Times of Israel, Corriere della Sera and Pagine Ebraiche.