'Many opportunities for biotech'

Although investment in Israeli projects was not the focus of the gathering, many participants lauded the host country as an excellent example of good science on the world stage.

More than ever, financial opportunities abound for innovative Israeli biotechnology/medical device companies and researchers - that was the message from venture capitalists, biotechnology and pharmaceutical executives at the 6th annual ILSI Biomed Israel conference, which took place in Tel Aviv last week. The three-day conference, which organizers claim was the largest life sciences conference to have ever taken place here, brought together medical technology companies, biotech start-ups, academics, venture capitalists and others involved in the world bio/medical technology and pharmaceutical markets. Although investment in Israeli projects was not the focus of the gathering, many participants lauded the host country as an excellent example of good science on the world stage. "Israel is a fantastic fountainhead of innovation," said Gerald Chan, chairman of the Morningside Group, a global investment firm based in Shanghai and Boston. "When you look at the number of universities here and the number of people, the amount of innovation on a per-capita basis is just phenomenal … and I find the science here just absolutely world class." Participants also stressed that although Israel is known worldwide for its impressive achievements in science and research, it is particularly strong in the field of medical technology. In a talk on the changing nature of European investment in biotechnology, John Hodgson, editor-at-large for the magazine Nature Biotechnology, noted that although Israel is seventh on the list of European countries that receive the most in terms of biotech venture capital investment, it matches the high investment numbers of the top-ranked UK in the medical technology sector. According to Hodgson, Israeli Biotech ventures received €60 million in 2006, accounting for 5 percent of the total investment in European biotech ventures. Meanwhile, on a panel discussion titled "Status USA" about the US Biotech industry, widely considered the largest and most profitable in the world, Jonathan Fleming of Oxford Life Sciences also stated that "there has been a massive shift in the US towards the medical device industry." His statement not only underscored the opportunity for Israeli companies, but also emphasized the importance of maintaining a global perspective for local start-ups and researchers, a point which many in the Israeli industry already take for granted, according to Ronit Bendori, a general partner at Israeli Evergreen Venture Partners. "An Israeli company from day zero starts thinking globally," said Bendori, whose company specifically invests in Israeli entrepreneurs. "Every company that makes an investment in healthcare should approach the global market. Israel is a small market and you do not invest $10, $20, $30 million for such a small market." "Thinking globally," according to Bendori, entails targeting new technologies and products to meet foreign approval standards, such as the FDA in the US, as well as maintaining strong business and management standards. The need for such a global approach was echoed by David Tsur, CEO of Israeli pharmaceutical company, Kamada, which went public 18 months ago. "Any Israeli company that is looking to pharma and life sciences should look global," Tsur told The Jerusalem Post. "I think the world looks at Israel as a place of great innovation. There is a great interest and a lot of business opportunities." Although according to the rules of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, a company cannot know exactly who its shareholders are, Tsur said he knows that there is investment in Kamada from all over the world and that he is very happy with his company's decision to go public. "We were at a stage 18 months ago where we needed additional funds to execute our business plans … Since then [going public], Kamada has raised $30m., company valuation has increased by 350% and daily trade in the stock is almost $300,000 dollars." Asked why he believes that more Israeli companies are not following suit, Tsur cited the fact that a company must invest a great deal in research and development before reaching a stage where it can go public. However, despite the fact that most Israeli companies and start-ups don't have the large amounts of capital or perhaps the will to go public, many are still able to attract impressive investments from abroad through partnerships with large, foreign companies or investment firms. Israel has a unique advantage when competing on the world market, according to Bendori. "What we have here [in Israel] is great innovation. I can't say that there is no competition elsewhere - of course there is. But the basic science, the quality of engineers, physicians, scientists here is such that we have an advantage." She also stressed the importance of networking within the industry, both with other Israelis and with industry members from abroad. Nothing can replace this sort of face-to-face contact, said Bendori, who also sat on the conference organizing committee. "The attendance [at this year's conference] is extremely high - unprecedented. The number of foreign visitors is huge. We've never had so many guests and significant guests - American venture funds, banks, industry," she exclaimed. With that in mind, she said she was hopeful the conference would continue to grow in efficacy, but not so much in size. In contrast to other life science conferences that take place around the world, she said: "This size is excellent - I hope that we will be able to keep it going into the future. Our goal is not to become bigger, but rather to become more effective."