AION Labs: At the forefront of the pharmaceutical revolution

Four times a year, five teams of scientists are invited to Israel for a five-day intensive boot camp, during which they solve a challenge relevant to today’s pharma industry.

 Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll with the participants of the AION Labs BootCamp. (photo credit: ALEX NEUGROSCHL)
Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll with the participants of the AION Labs BootCamp.
(photo credit: ALEX NEUGROSCHL)

The future of the pharmaceutical industry will go hand-in-hand with the tech industry, according to AION Labs CEO Mati Gill, and his company will be leading the way in bringing Israel to the forefront of the future of pharma.

AION Labs is a first-of-its-kind alliance of global pharma and technology leaders, all working to change the future of medicine through the creation of technologies that will transform the process of drug discovery and development worldwide.

A partnership of seven international and leading pharmaceutical and tech companies – AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Merch, Teva, Amazon Web Services, Israel Biotech Fund and BioMedX – AION labs uses a unique multidisciplinary approach to find solutions to problems that have not yet been solved.

Four times a year, five teams of scientists are invited to Israel following an application process for a five-day intensive boot camp, during which they work together to solve a specific research and design challenge relevant to today’s pharma industry.

At the end of the five days, the winning team is offered a contract to start their own start-up company in AION Labs, based in Rehovot, as well as four years of funding and continuous support from the company’s mentors.

 AION Labs participants work on their proposals ahead of their final presentations. (credit: AION Labs Team) AION Labs participants work on their proposals ahead of their final presentations. (credit: AION Labs Team)

The current challenge? Artificial intelligence for antibody design.

“We select four challenges every year, and then launch each one on a quarterly basis globally,” Gill explained to The Jerusalem Post, sitting in the airy Amazon Web Services office space where the boot camp is taking place.

Applications to the program arrive from all over the world, with many coming from Israeli scientists living and working abroad who are eager to find new work opportunities in their home country. Fifteen finalists are then selected to attend the boot camp and compete for the life-changing opportunity.

“We bring them to Israel and provide them with four years of funding, mentorship, guidance, access to data and all the support needed to be able to develop their start-up,” Gill elaborated, describing the process.

What need did the founders of AION Labs identify in the market for their unique partnership between tech and pharma companies, many of whom are often in competition with each other?

“We want to address demonstrated needs that do not have ready-made solutions, to develop those technologies that can impact the whole industry,” he said. “We can work the right way from day one in a synergetic process with all these pharma companies, the technological companies, cloud-based technologies and smart investors that really know how to build companies that will be attractive for continuous funding.”

AION Labs CEO Mati Gil. (credit: AION Labs Team)AION Labs CEO Mati Gil. (credit: AION Labs Team)

The unique boot camp format of the project allows for four new companies to be created in this process every year, setting the stage for Israel to become a real competitor in the world of pharma, something it has been trying to achieve for many years.

“Israel has for many years tried and failed to bring global pharma to come and invest and to build successful companies in the pharmaceutical space... we haven’t been successful in Israel in developing new drugs,” Gill explained in answer to why Israel was the right place for this ambitious project.

“If the whole industry is headed toward places where artificial intelligence and machine learning and computational technologies will be increasingly integrated into the processes of development and discovery of drugs, that’s where Israel can be competitive at a global scale.”

Working alongside AION Labs and helping them to achieve their vision is Dr. Christian Tidona, the founder and managing director of BioMed X Institute, and the man behind the lab’s operating model.

Since founding his company in 2013, Tidona’s goal was to bridge the gap between academic research and the pharmaceutical industry, he told the Post. Through BioMed X institute, after which AION Labs is modeled, Tidona has recruited some 200 scientists to work at his institute in Heidelberg, Germany, one of the biggest biomedical research campuses in Europe.

After seeing the success his project enjoyed in Germany, Tidona turned to Israel, seeing the potential to create something similar in the Start-Up Nation.

“We’re finding talent around the world, not just Israeli experts, of course, but in general, talents around the world, identifying them, moving them physically to the facilities at AION Labs and helping them to create great solutions for the benefit of the patients and become great entrepreneurs.”

While the goal of the boot camp is to create start-ups, Tidona explained, the unique selling point of this model is that they “are not just building let’s say, a unicorn to get rich and then sell the company, but they are building something which will create jobs in the long term in Israel.”

The other significant difference that sets AION Labs apart is the way in which several large pharmaceutical companies have joined forces to work on the project, despite spending most of their time in direct competition with each other.

“This is the first time, that is known to me at least, that global pharma companies were able to identify a pre-competitive area in the bio-convergence arena,” AstraZeneca’s operations leader in Israel Sharon Ein-Gal told the Post. “It’s pharma and hi-tech working together in areas that are not typical for us.”

“We have put skin in the game,” she continued. “Because we put in money, we put in equity, we’re building a model together that will commit to sponsoring new start-ups for up to four years. This is a very down to earth, very deep commitment for pharmaceutical companies to take on together.”

The five labor-intensive days of the boot camp are set to draw to a close on Thursday evening, when teams will present their proposals to the AION Labs’ investment committee and a winner will be selected, followed by a  farewell ceremony. Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll visited the boot camp at Amazon Web Services earlier in the week and met the participants.

COVID-19 has shown that Israel is a world leader in health technologies and this lab brings the best minds from around the world and helps bring Israeli minds back to Israel in order to develop the most advanced technologies in life sciences and medicine,” Roll said during his visit.

“The lab meets two challenges facing the Israeli hi-tech sector: the development of start-ups and hi-tech companies that will grow and remain in Israel, and bringing back talent to Israel.”