Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University announced the opening of the Jefferson Israel Center in a ceremony in Jerusalem on Tuesday, with the goals of boosting existing partnerships between Jefferson and Israeli colleges and universities, and opening the door to new possibilities.
“We plan to scale up existing partnerships and find new ones,” Mark Tykocinski, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at Jefferson, told The Jerusalem Post.
Jefferson also signed a joint declaration with the Israel Innovation Authority that calls for proposals to link Israeli healthcare start-ups with Jefferson’s academic and clinical enterprise in order to propel cutting-edge products and services to the US market.
Jefferson’s Zvi Grunwald will serve as executive director of the center, relocating at least one-third of the year to Israel. Grunwald is a native Israeli who has been living in the US for decades. He serves as the James D. Wentzler professor of anesthesiology at Sidney Kimmel Medical College and is best known for his expertise in working with patients with Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, an extremely rare connective tissue disease.
The center does not have a physical location yet but plans to open one soon. Jefferson has had partnerships in Israel for more than five years. In 2013, Jefferson and Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science put out a joint call for proposals in the areas of system and computational biology, which resulted in nine collaborative research pairs. Three years ago, Jefferson became a preferred clinical elective training site for Hebrew University medical students in the IDF’s Tzameret track.
The university also has business partnerships with Israel’s biotech sector, including with Breath of Life Pharma and Alpha Tau Medical.
“This process with Israel happened long ago, but it is solidified today,” said Grunwald.
The center, explained Tykocinski, will “give life to our vision of redefining ‘humanly possible.’
“Israel’s value proposition is its thriving innovation ecosystem and compelling overlap with defined Jefferson strengths, among them life sciences, data sciences, medicine, digital health, population health intelligence, industrial design, smart textiles and architecture,” Tykocinski said.
Jefferson has moved fast to finalize several mergers, making it one of the fastest growing academic medical centers in the United States. Its hospital sees more than 4.3 million patients annually and has over 6,600 physicians in its clinical orbit.
Jefferson has 10 colleges and four schools, along with a major health system, Jefferson Health.
“Jefferson’s system works like the Israeli system,” said Grunwald, citing the Jewish state’s fast-paced start-up arena. “You can get things done.”
Grunwald said plans are already underway to scaleup existing joint ventures, expand programmatic research ties with more Israeli academic centers, broaden educational ties beyond medical schools, and develop collaborative health services research projects.
The center will also be working together with the Israel Innovation Authority and the Google LaunchPad Accelerator in Tel Aviv.
TYKOCINSKI SAID Israeli companies looking for product validation in the US marketplace will now be able to better tap into Jefferson’s clinical laboratories and its expansive health science system, including its PIER Consortium (Partners in Innovation, Education and Research) – a streamlined clinical trial system.
Jefferson recently hosted 22 digital health start-ups on campus. Tykocinski explained that while Jefferson develops start-ups around its own discoveries, it has likewise developed a model whereby the university can take the discoveries of others and propel them forward.
“Jefferson’s connection with Israeli start-ups has been no small part of that development,” Tykocinski said. “We are moving at an Israeli pace and that makes this so exciting. We feel at home in this country.”
The center in Israel will become Jefferson’s second such center. The first was established in Japan five years ago and focuses on humanism and medicine. Jefferson has plans to open additional centers in Italy, India and Latin America.
Tykocinski explained that each center has a different focus. In Italy, the goal will be to collaborate with the European Union. In India, Jefferson plans to scale-up existing collaborative research on maternal and child health in low-income countries. And in Latin America, the focus will be on global health.
Tykocinski said in addition to the focus on Israeli innovation, Jefferson hopes to work with Israel to address the issues of health disparities in the US and Israel, specifically through partnerships with Ben-Gurion University, Sheba Medical Center and Rambam Hospital, all of which serve diverse and lower-income communities.
Additionally, Jefferson hopes to launch collaborations with Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and the university’s Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce and JeffDesign – a college-within-a-college design track that applies design thinking to healthcare professional training.
“We foresee giving an industrial design or smart textiles project to students at our East Falls campus and the very same project to students at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design or Bezalel and having them work across continents on solutions that are powered by diversity of thought, experience and culture,” said Grunwald.
Jefferson held the official launch ceremony last week to coincide with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s tour of Israel marking the country’s 70th birthday, for which Jefferson was the university sponsor.
The orchestra was met with several protests in response to its decision to play in Israel. Pro-Palestinian activists protested outside the orchestra’s Kimmel Center for several weeks and protesters interrupted one of the orchestra’s performances in Brussels, as two women stood up with chants of “Free, free Palestine,” causing music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin to stop conducting for about 25 minutes.
Tykocinski said he does not fear similar repercussions for the university’s decision to open the Jefferson Israel Center and would not cave into the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting the Jewish state.
“We are proud to be working with Israel,” said Tykocinski. “We believe health and the arts rise above politics.”
Added Grunwald: “We are excited about the innovation and collaboration, and this excitement crosses boundaries between oceans and countries.”