Looking out from his modest home at Kibbutz Sde Boker, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, longed “to make the desert bloom.”
Not just a man of vision and Zionist ideals, but also a pioneer and man of his word, Ben-Gurion returned to settle in the desert after retiring from public life, and spent his last years there until his death in 1973.
“It is in the Negev where the creativity and pioneering vigor of Israel shall be tested,” the Polish-born premier famously said.
Buoyed by those Zionist ideals for a decade now, the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev, located in Beersheba, has quietly moved to advance the very creativity and pioneering spirit cited by Ben-Gurion.
The first self-organized, independent research entity established under the auspices of a university in Israel, NIBN aims to conduct multidisciplinary applied research and to bridge the gap between basic and applied innovative research.
Not just planting the seeds of settling the desert through its impressive home within the campus of Ben-Gurion University, NIBN also aims to plant the scientific seeds that will lead to the commercialization of novel ideas and innovation in biotechnology developed by its researchers.
“The vision is to truly make the Negev bloom by establishing biotechnology start-up companies and creating jobs, based on the huge need to establish a successful biotechnology industry here and in Israel as a whole,” NIBN CEO Dr. Osnat Ohne told The Jerusalem Post.
The NIBN was the brainchild of Edgar de Picciotto, a Swiss banker and philanthropist who died at age 86 in 2016 and first recognized the need to develop biotechnology research in the Negev in the mid-1990s. The institute was incorporated as a company in 2009, receiving $90 million in funding from de Picciotto, the Israeli government and BGU.
Founding director Prof. Varda Shoshan-Barmatz, a leading scientist in the department of life sciences at BGU, oversaw the development of the institute’s scientific infrastructure.
“Our mission is to support applied research, to identify clear commercial potential and lead ideas to commercialization,” said Ohne. “The broader vision is to establish companies here in the Negev – boosting the economy of the Negev, the university and Israel.”
Emphasizing the decades of industry experience gained by NIBN’s management team prior to joining the institute, Ohne says they are able to skillfully bridge the gap between academia and industry, a critical element in ensuring that research does not remain confined to the laboratory but is successfully commercialized.
“When we do approach potential investors and partners, the level of research with which we approach them is much more advanced and addresses bio-industry standards,” Dr. Ron Lahav, executive director R and D, told the Post.
“We educate the researchers, because they’re not familiar with the industry. We educate them on how the industry looks at things, whether it’s drug discovery or intellectual property.”
Today, NIBN is home to more than 200 researchers, students and employees, utilizing state-of-the-art equipment and technologies to focus on key areas of research where the institute has a strategic advantage, including cancer, neurodegeneration, autoimmunity, infectious diseases, applied biotechnology, genetic disorders and rare diseases.
Staff members from various faculties and disciplines are encouraged to interact and share knowledge, leading to cross-fertilization of ideas and increasingly innovative research. Creating an environment conducive to pioneering ideas, researchers are backed by substantial grants and support in intellectual property, project management and business development.
ALONGSIDE ACCELERATING scientific discoveries, one of NIBN’s key objectives is to bring some of Israel’s best brains back to the country from abroad, where facilities are often more advanced and research grants are more generous.
Of the two-dozen researchers at the institute, 18 have returned from positions outside of Israel, with many buying into NIBN’s Ben-Gurion-inspired vision for the South.
“The challenge is twofold. One of the targets is to bring researchers back to Israel, and not just to other universities in Israel,” said Ohne.
“Instead, we want them to be part of the establishment of the biotechnology ecosystem in the Negev. Rather than living in Tel Aviv, many have decided to relocate with their families to Omer, Lahavim, Beersheba and Midreshet Ben-Gurion.”
Notable researchers returning from abroad include Dr. Ran Zalk, who returned to his hometown of Beersheba after 11 years at Columbia University, and Dr. Tomer Hertz, who spent seven years at Seattle’s renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“I was born and raised in Beersheba, and did my bachelor’s and PhD degrees at Ben-Gurion University under the supervision of Prof. Shoshan-Barmatz, who later became the head of the NIBN,” associate research scientist Zalk told the Post.
In 2015, Shoshan-Barmatz reached out to Zalk to discuss her vision to bring cryogenic electron microscopy to Beersheba, a revolutionary method of microscopy that resulted in its developers receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017.
“Without too many hesitations, I took this opportunity to make a real difference and to launch the cryo-EM unit at the NIBN,” Zalk said. “Our team provides cryo-EM laboratory services and training for all levels of scientists in Israel, both from academia and industry.”
Persuading leading researchers to return to Israel, Lahav believes, is about “being part of something bigger than just their own research.”
“When you speak to them, and not necessarily about their scientific research, you hear their passion and their vision for training the next generation and establishing companies in the Negev,” Lahav said.
“One of the common denominators among our researchers is that they are not just here because of the possibility to perform applied and innovative science, but also to contribute to making the Negev bloom.”
Only one decade since NIBN’s incorporation, the institute already boasts an extensive list of success stories. Over 800 papers have been published in scientific journals by NIBN scientists, its portfolio comprises 50 patent families, and five projects have been out-licensed – leading to the establishment of two new companies and three technologies incorporated into the pipeline of larger biopharma companies.
The institute’s desire to have a tangible impact on the South is exemplified by a population genetics research project conducted by Prof. Ohad Birk, deciphering the molecular basis of nearly 30 severe human diseases – including some of the common hereditary diseases found in Bedouin and Sephardi Jews.
Having gained the trust of the Bedouin community, Birk has successfully implemented routine screening testing for the prevention of relevant diseases. As a result, there has been a 30% reduction in infant mortality in the Negev Bedouin community in recent years.
In addition to fostering the scientific breakthroughs of today, NIBN is increasingly playing a role in securing the Negev as a hub of game-changing research long into the future.
“We started several programs this year where we go to high schools and talk to kids,” said Lahav.
“It is very important for the Negev to continue to lead this field, and we see ourselves as fulfilling an important function by educating future generations of scientists.”