A dose of optimism

As other hi-tech firms tighten their belts, CEO of BioLine, Morris Laster, is still hopeful about the industry's future.

morris laster 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
morris laster 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In the emergent biotech sector, innovation is everything. For years, Israeli companies have tried to harness the tremendous amount of medical research being done in Israel to turn a profit. Today, one entrepreneur thinks he has it. In his office in the midst of Jerusalem's hi-tech sector, Dr. Morris Laster, the CEO of BioLineRx, appears unassuming, even demure. He is 44 but looks younger, an impression compounded by his Nike soccer-style sweatshirt in lieu of a shirt and tie. Laster grew up in Brooklyn, New York. After finishing medical school, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to take up a residency. But he was a typical doctor-in-training in name only. By the time he had finished school, he had already founded his first pharmaceutical start-up. Laster would go on to establish two more such companies before moving to Israel with his wife. The son of two Israelis, Laster had spent every summer until the age of 12 in Israel, which he considered his home. He resumed his residency at Hadassah-University Medical Center, still intending to complete his medical training. Even in Israel, however, life interrupted. As a doctor, Laster was a valuable asset for the army. He was quickly drafted into the paratroopers, where he served for a year and a half as a medical officer. Army service marked the beginning of the end for Laster's hopes of a purely medical career. He turned full time to business, finding investors and expertise for his newest venture, BioLine. Today, BioLine is on the brink of considerable success, says Laster, who becomes very animated when he talks about the company's business model and future prospects. "Only in Israel could something like this have been possible," he asserts. Laster's original vision for BioLine has remained largely intact: The company operates as a clinical bridge between drug researchers and inventors, and large pharmaceutical companies interested in purchasing viable new therapies. Drug research costs hundreds of millions of dollars and is a very risky investment because there is often little way of knowing whether a compound being researched will ever yield a marketable product. Classically, large companies did the research work on their own, obtaining capital from investors by assembling impressive people and equally impressive technology. Dr. Aharon Schwartz, vice president of Teva, together with other Israeli investors, had a simple idea: Instead of investing huge amounts of money and personnel into one or two compounds, they founded BioLine to take advantage of the growing life-sciences research field in Israel, decreasing risk and overheads. They recruited biotech veteran Laster, and after a year and a half of assembling his team, including Nobel prize-winning chemist Aaron Ciechanover, Laster launched the company in 2003. It is now engaged in clinical trials on numerous promising drugs, most of which have been developed at Israeli universities. Today, BioLine is preparing to sell its first two products to interested parties in the pharmaceutical industry: a chemical that significantly reduces symptoms of schizophrenia without the usual side effects of weight-gain and tremors; and an injection for patients who recently suffered a heart attack to increase the heart's viability. On his computer, Laster plays an information video about the latter drug. On the screen, a computer-generated heart suddenly stops pumping blood, and a large brown spot appears on the front. Then BioLine's compound is injected, and the brown spot, instead of expanding and weakening, hardens into a shiny, metallic patch. He is confident that BioLine will come through the recession unscathed; however, he is worried about research and development in Israel in general. "I fear that this economic storm will cause a collapse in non-academic Israeli R&D," he says. To that end, he reveals a revolutionary plan: to take the cause of R&D companies to the government in the hope of changing investment laws. "Just as a concerned citizen, you have to be thinking about how to get people to invest in this sector," Laster says. Luckily for him, BioLine is financially sound for the next two years, even without any sales. Laster's plan would be more about rewarding investors. He wants investments made in research companies to be tax-free after three or four years; additionally, if a research company went under, he would prefer that all its investors receive a tax credit for their investments, eliminating the risk. Laster doesn't know if his plan will receive much interest, but he is committed to reaching out to the venture capital community - especially now that Israel has started to feel the full strain of the global economic crisis. "The [companies] that provide growth and stimulus are innovative R&D ventures," he says, a statement he believes BioLine will soon validate.