Yissum subsidiary turns HU inventions into money

But inventor of premier Alzheimer's drug muses over mix of business and academia.

nava swersky 88 (photo credit: )
nava swersky 88
(photo credit: )
Academic institutions are rarely known for generating profits, but the Hebrew University subsidiary Yissum, which markets inventions patented by the school's faculty, has generated more than $51 million in revenues, money that will fund additional research. Yissum is the university's technology transfer company, responsible for converting inventions generated in the laboratory into money-making ideas. It is a strange animal, a gateway between the academic and business worlds. Nava Swersky Sofer, president and CEO of Yissum, explained how the company managed to net revenues for the school that are comparable to those achieved by much larger universities in the US. She mentioned Yissum's 40 years of experience handling hundreds of patents as an important factor in its success. Also, while wholly owned by the university, the company is structured to work completely independently, rather than as an office of the university, so Yissum can operate with a business mindset, and can employ personnel on a private-sector - rather than academic - pay scale. Prof. Marta Weinstock-Rosin, of the university's Department of Pharmacology, was one of the first to market an invention through Yissum. The veteran researcher, who is still active in her Ein Kerem laboratory, described the rocky road she traveled before her revolutionary Alzheimer's drug, Exelon, could hit the market. The original research, done in the late 1970s, was actually geared toward finding a cancer drug, Weinstock-Rosin said, but she noticed that the drug had an effect on the neurotransmitters in the areas of the brain known to be affected by Alzheimer's. "I spent hours trying to convince the funders to allow me to change my grant terms so that I could test the drug for Alzheimer's," she recalled. By 1985, the patent had been licensed to Sandoz , which began to run clinical trials of the drug, and only in 1997 did pharmaceutical giant Novartis, which by then had acquired the rights to the drug, begin to market it. In 2007, Novartis sold $632m. worth of the drug, which alleviates some of the mental problems associated with Alzheimer's, such as memory loss, although there is still no way to prevent the disease's progression. Weinstock-Rosin said that in retrospect, the rights to the drug were sold for a paltry sum, but justified then-Yissum chief Moshe Vigdor's decision. "He was so surprised that anyone would buy it, particularly after our experience in Israel," where no company would purchase the drug rights. "Since then, both Yissum and I have learned quite a bit about this business." Yissum is involved in other areas, including agriculture, where two professors from the school's Rehovot campus came up with a successful breed of long-shelf-life tomatoes, and clean-tech, where the company is invested in cleaner energy and water treatment. In November, Yissum sold the rights to a biodegradable plastic invented by Dr. Sergei Braun that may revolutionize the disposal of plastic bags and other products. Yissum brings in about 10 percent of the university's $105m. research budget. The money goes to help fund, among other projects, the MAGNET consortium for clean-water research and "baby seed" projects for ideas that are not even mature enough to attract seed money from venture capitalists. Weinstock-Rosin says the relationship between business and academia in Israel is a troubling one. "Researchers are forced by funding considerations to become 'product-oriented,'" she said, leaving no time or money for basic research. Meanwhile, professors have difficulty performing commercially-oriented research, because they lack sufficient trained technical help. The master's and doctoral students who populate university labs are hungry to publish results, but often lack technical skills, while commercial firms require product confidentiality. "The whole field requires serious rethinking and re-funding," said Weinstock-Rosin. "Academia should be academia and industry should be industry." Swersky Sofer denies that professors let the money go to their heads. The focus of research is the generation of knowledge and academic excellence, and Yissum is merely a "byproduct of a breeding ground for innovation," she said.