Gravity! Without it, we would all float off into space, along with our cats, dogs, spouses, credit cards and toothbrushes.
Remember the story about Isaac Newton getting bonked on the head by an apple falling from a tree and discovering gravity? It is untrue.
It is true, though, that Newton wondered why apples fall straight to the ground – a basic question others failed to ask. And Newton’s two laws of gravity that resulted are still very true. Gravity varies directly with mass. And gravity varies inversely with the square of distance.
Gravity does keep our feet on the ground. But we pay a price. At times, gravity hampers scientific research. For instance, it distorts the shape of molecules and hinders the growth of crystals.
So: what if you could do science without gravity, for example in space?
Enter Israeli entrepreneur Yossi Yamin, founder of SpacePharma, who spoke with the Jerusalem Report just before his tiny lab-on-a-chip splashed down in the Pacific, after a successful sojourn in zero-gravity orbit.
How did you get the idea for SpacePharma and ‘lab on a chip’?
The idea came from the high cost of launching science into space. The cost is based on weight. I thought about something that would be cost-effective. I searched for technology that could transport liquids in small drops. I viewed a liter of liquid not as a liter, but as a billion droplets. Then I searched for droplet technology and encountered the lab-on-a-chip technology. I went to the Technion to study it and discovered that there does not yet exist a lab-on-a-chip but there is, however, a chip-in-a-lab.
I met with Technion Professor Moran Berkovici in the Mechanical Engineering Faculty. He told me, if you do manage to move droplets on a chip, you will create an incredible ecosystem. And we did! It reduces the cost of science experiments in space dramatically, by subscribing many customers who divide the total cost of the equipment and launch among them.
Just as there are pixels [a tiny unit of color in a computer display], there are droplets, or ‘dropix.’ Each time a droplet passes through a corridor on the chip, it is metered and recorded. This is what I sell – per droplet. We sell each droplet. We apply technology to each droplet, and charge, similar to SaaS, software as a service, per use. In each half micron (1/2,000th of a millimeter), I can place four to six crystals.
Why do science in space? What do we gain?
With zero gravity, there are no fluid mechanics, no heat transfer, each molecule retains its natural shape, there is no distortion from gravity. If you put a sample of tissue in a Petri dish, gravity smashes it flat, right? But in space I can place the sample, e.g. a droplet from a biopsy, and in space it will retain its perfect three-dimensional shape as if it were still inside the human body. It’s simple. But many failed to grasp the idea.
In the IDF Intelligence Corps I was commander of a satellite unit. We used hydrazine [long-term storable propellant for in-space satellite positioning]. It goes from liquid to spray, and its jets move the satellite into position. So I knew you could use liquid droplets in space. But 38-liter tanks are heavy and expensive. So I said, ‘I will miniaturize it down to a droplet.’ The world did not yet grasp this idea.
Give me a ‘for instance’ of what SpacePharma did in space that could not be done on Earth.
We succeeded in crystallizing a small molecule, now patented. On Earth, a molecule with molecular weight smaller than 500 daltons cannot survive intact and cannot grow, cannot become a crystal. And if by chance it does grow into crystal form, its maximum size is eight to 10 microns. In space we grew it into a 50-micron crystal, six times larger than possible on Earth.
Why bring the lab-on-a-chip back to Earth, when you already have downloaded all the experimental data and sent it to Earth?
We do send telemetry data from space. For example, Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe’s recent flight to the International Space Station will return to Earth in a capsule landing in the Pacific Ocean. The lab-on-a-chip that went with him will also return intact.
I was told it will not survive the strong G-forces, 11 G’s [11 times the force of gravity]. It is delicate, there are shocks, vibrations. But despite everything, it will land intact. Why? Because everything is in liquid droplets. They are durable, in contrast with large mechanical objects.
When I looked for durable precision mechanical parts, I went to Rolex [the Swiss watchmaker]. And it worked! The Americans launch systems weighing three tons. Mine weigh four kilos (8.8 pounds).
You are 53 years old. You spent more than 20 years in IDF Intelligence. How did your age and experience prove crucial in your success?
In the Army, you get practice. Methodology. The method is crucial for a start-up. Money? It helps you persist through failure. But if you can’t identify the cause of a failure, even loads of money won’t help.”
SpacePharma involves chemistry, biology, electronics, computer science, optics, mechanics. You employed experts in each. But somebody has to see the big picture, the systems integrator. That was your role?
Yes. I was a systems integrator. I built a new niche market with satellite-space technology, by taking a new direction.
SpacePharma has had seven launches and did over 50 pathbreaking experiments. Clearly you can do zero-gravity experiments. But can you actually make stuff in space, in little factories?
A factory in space in our next step. We will create the first factory in space, at the beginning of 2024. James Bond-suitcase style! With four production lines!
Yamin explained that SpacePharma has a virtual private network control connected to its software. It enables clients to intervene once they see something good or bad in a zero-gravity experiment in space.
If it’s good, he noted, they want to repeat it. If it’s bad, they want to fix it. He said that SpacePharma provides this technology directly to the client under the extreme conditions of space.
According to Daniel Lee, writing for the International Business Times website, only seven companies in the world do space research and development for pharma companies, and offer only experiments that require human intervention. SpacePharma, he notes, has a three-to-five-year lead on most competitors, as it focuses not solely on drug development but also conducts a wide range of other experiments, without human hands.
Lee explains that “microgravity research was first done by humans sent into space at a significant cost of $10m-$70m per experiment, and was performed by hand. Today, companies like SpacePharma have dramatically reduced the cost by relying on fully functional, state-of-the-art mini-labs launched into space and controlled remotely from Earth.”
SpacePharma is a contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO). Experts note the global pharmaceutical CDMO market will grow to $240 billion by 2026, from $160 billion in 2021. “The opportunities for companies facilitating microgravity research are endless”, said Lee.
“Very soon we are going to see that the space domain will capture a bigger and bigger stake within medicine and pharmacology formulation technology.”Yossi Yamin
Yamin recently told The Jerusalem Post’s Zachy Hennessy, “Very soon we are going to see that the space domain will capture a bigger and bigger stake within medicine and pharmacology formulation technology. I’m talking about mini-shuttles, which are like little SUV’s about 4.5 meters in length (about 15 feet), and those will allow SpacePharma to carry up to 100 kilos per mission flight and to provide up to 60 production lines for a variety of clients to produce.
“Those mini-shuttles are unmanned, and at the end of an eight- to-12-week mission, it will be able to land softly on the runway. This is the vector of the company right now; the International Space Station is another milestone toward achieving this.”
Science in space is not hype. Here are three examples, showing how SpacePharma’s innovation can benefit humanity immensely:
- Curing cancer: A drug, Doxil, developed in Israel by Ayana Pharma was recently tested in a zero-gravity SpacePharma lab-on-a-chip. Doxil, a cancer treatment, is the first nanotechnology drug to receive FDA approval. The experiment tested for the first time whether there is a change in the drug itself, and its effect against cancer cells, under zero-gravity. Dr. Yehezkel Bernholtz is the founder of Ayana. Bernholtz designed the experiment in which his drug meets tumor cells, and packaged it in a SpacePharma container the size of two cigarette packs.
- Antibiotic resistance: A nanosatellite, Dido III, manufactured by SpacePharma, partnered with Sheba Medical Center to launch a medical experiment in space. Sheba aims to test its theory that microgravity in space reduces antibiotic resistance acquisition. This can perhaps help solve the worsening global problem of bacterial resistance to existing antibiotics, which is said to kill 1.3 million people a year globally.
- Vaccines: Writing in the business daily Calcalist, Yafit Ovadia reports that “SpacePharma hopes to one day produce... vaccines in space. Its MoTi satellite [named for Charlie Chaplin’s revolutionary 1936 film Modern Times] will be the first pharmaceutical production facility in space.”
Just to clarify: At 200-250 miles above the Earth, where the International Space Station orbits, gravity is not zero – it is 90% of gravity on Earth. However, on a satellite traveling at 17,150 miles an hour, objects are weightless. An astronaut standing on Earth does not feel weightless because the ground exerts a force that opposes the force of gravity. But in space there is no ground, no opposing force. Hence objects are weightless. They are in free fall.
Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once observed that truly advanced technology cannot be distinguished from magic. SpacePharma’s tiny science labs are magical.
That magic in space is making people on earth healthier and happier. And best of all – Israel leads.
Postscript: On April 25 at 8:07 p.m. Israel time, four astronauts splashed down in a SpaceX Dragon capsule off the cost of Florida, after 17 days in the International Space Station. The capsule included Israeli entrepreneur Eytan Stibbe and SpacePharma’s lab-on-a chip. One of the experiments involved Israeli startup Aleph Farm’s cultivated steak made from proteins rather than from live cattle. ■
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com