‘There’s an Israeli working on every insoluble problem'

Dr. Garry Neil, who runs Johnson & Johnson’s innovation search unit, doesn’t mind whether the ideas come from an academic researcher or a mature company.

May 14, 2011 22:09
3 minute read.
The Jerusalem Post

laboratory 311. (photo credit: Bloomberg)


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Johnson & Johnson (J&J) is one of the most active companies in M&A in Israel, the kind that Israeli start-ups love to be bought by, particularly because of its tendency to allow them a considerable degree of autonomy.

Since the early 1990s, J&J has bought companies here to the tune of more than $1 billion: Prof. Shlomo Ben-Haim’s and Lewis Pell’s Biosense for $500 million, ColBar for $159m. and Omrix for $425m. Biosense and Omrix remain to this day Israeli R&D centers.

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“For every problem in the world recognized as insoluble, there is one Israeli or more energetically working on it,” Dr. Garry Neil, corporate vice president at the Corporate Office of Science and Technology (COSAT) at J&J, told Globes in an exclusive interview. COSAT is responsible for J&J’s early-stage cooperation with academic instructions and young companies.

“The book Start-up Nation sums it up well,” he said. “Israelis aren’t afraid of technology and want to solve problems. Apart from that, because everybody knows everybody, they gladly exchange information.

It’s wonderful.”

Neil is scheduled to come to Israel to lecture at the ILSI-Biomed Israel Conference 2011, which will take place May 23-25 in Tel Aviv. It will be the annual conference’s tenth year.

Mature companies can approach us The pharmaceuticals and medicaldevice giant has a strong connection with Israel: investments to the tune of tens of millions of dollars through its venture-capital fund Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation, whose vice president for venture investments is r. Zeev Zehavi, an Israeli.

The fund has invested in Percutaneous Valve Technologies (sold to Edwards Lifesciences), BrainsGate, Impulse Dynamics, McRobot, NovoCure, GeneGrafts, Topspin Medical (which became a stockmarket shell), Medigus, Mazor, Bioness, ApoSense and two other companies that shut down.

J&J employs 11,000 researchers and engineers around the world and is active in three main fields: medical devices, drugs and consumer products. Neil’s role is, among other things, to encourage cooperation between the researchers in all the company’s areas of activity.

For start-up companies interested in working with J&J, COSAT is a good starting point. Neil has an overview of the company’s R&D needs because COSAT is in touch with all of J&J’s subsidiaries and partners.

J&J ascribes great importance to Israel, and so COSAT has stationed a technology hunter here, Dr. Joni Catalano-Sherman, whose task is to find the hot developments.

Innovative ideas can reach COSAT from within the company or from outside it.

“We take care of interactivity between the corporation’s diverse R&D groups, in order to accelerate innovation within, and we learn from the R&D people what their needs are, in order to know what to look for outside,” Neil said.

J&J has many collaborations at the academic stage and has good relations with Israeli universities. Sometimes the collaboration proceeds directly from the academic institution to the industry via a PreVenture, a venture that COSAT builds with an academic researcher, in which J&J finances the researcher’s independent R&D, with the aim of setting up a joint company later on.

Most of the Israeli companies in which J&J has invested were at a more mature stage when the two sides met, Neil said.

“We are a suitable address for mature companies, too,” he said.

Areas of recent interest to J&J are biological markers and personalized drugs, Neil said.

“This will gather momentum very soon, together with improvement in computing capabilities and cheaper genome sequencing,” he said. “The change will start with cancer. In my opinion, the pharma industry will improve treatment of the disease substantially in the next five years. The pharma companies have 800 cancer drugs in clinical trials.”

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