Canaries of the Future (Extract)

Yissum, the Hebrew University's technology transfer company is located at the juncture between basic research and industry

23ziv88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Coal miners once used canaries to warn them of the imminent danger of gas build-ups in mines. Now, a Jerusalem biologist has devised an early warning system for polluted water reservoirs, also based on nature's monitoring abilities. Instead of the canary, however, it's bacteria, genetically engineered to respond to various chemicals, that Shimshon Belkin, professor at the Hebrew University's Silberman Institute of Life Sciences is harnessing to serve as reliable, real-time indicators of water quality. Attached to polymers and immersed in a body of water, they literally glow in response to the presence of pollutants. The system, developed into monitoring technology by fusing biology with electronic hardware in collaboration with Prof. Aharon Agranat of Hebrew University's Applied Physics Department, provides a quick alternative to the traditional and more tedious method of analyzing water samples in laboratories, which can often take up to a week. The Belkin-Agranat biosensor project was recently selected as one of five novel technologies receiving financing from the CleanTech fund, which supports the development of inventions with commercial potential in environmentally-friendly industries. Established by Yissum, Hebrew University's technology-transfer company, the CleanTech fund is an expression of Yissum's identification of environmental technologies as a fast emerging global megatrend. Yissum - the name means "application" in Hebrew - and its staff of 24 are located at the juncture between basic research and industry - a crossroads that is increasingly important as the world's wealth becomes ever more dependent on what is being termed a "knowledge economy." Owned by the university but registered and run as a fully for-profit corporation, it earned revenues of $55 million last year. It was originally founded on a classic technology transfer business model - registering patents based on research conducted by university scientists and making profits from the licensing royalties generated by those patents. But over the years Yissum has expanded in a more aggressive direction of actively seeking partnerships with business, working with industry leaders for the commercialization of inventions. It also has the authority to create its own spin-off companies, and has over the years created 65 of them, including successful start-ups such as Chiasma, a biotechnology company, and MobileEye, which produces a vehicle vision system for on-board driving assistance and recently signed a $150 million contract with Italy's Cobra Automotive Technologies. "We need to remain on top of emerging megatrends as much as any technology or investment company," Yehuda Yarmut, vice president for licensing and intellectual property (IP) and currently serving as the acting CEO of Yissum, tells The Jerusalem Report. "We are now in the process of expanding the model by asking companies what their future needs might be, even before the research has been conducted and the patents registered. We are asking them to peer ten years into the future, and then matching them with appropriate researchers." Yarmut explains that "corporate funding pays for experiments and the support of researchers and graduate schools; patents are registered on the discoveries; and the company putting up the money gets the technology it needs." Yissum is in advanced stages of negotiating deals structured around this model with several large European corporations, says Yarmut, the holder of a masters degree in agricultural sciences from Hebrew University and an MBA from Erasmus University in the Netherlands. He worked in management positions at computer start-ups before taking a marketing position at Yissum seven years ago. Patents royalties are a very big business. Yissum has over 5,500 listed patents covering 1,600 inventions, and it has signed deals for 480 technology licenses that have commercialized an array of successful products generating over $1 billion in worldwide sales every year. Some of the big hits Yissum has scored include its patents for Doxil, a cancer treatment drug licensed by Johnson & Johnson, and Exelon, used in Alzheimer treatment, purchased by Novartis. Its licensing partners include 3M, Bayer, Intel, Merck, IBM and Dupont. Its in-house legal staff works on over 100 patents a year, making it one of the leading IP legal teams in Israel. The Weizmann Institute's counterpart to Yissum, Yeda, reportedly has sales that are twice as large as Yissum's. Both are among the top 15 university technology-transfer companies in the world. "Basic research is always going to be in high demand," says Yarmut. "Last year, when everyone in the business world was going through the worst year in memory, Yissum had its best year," he says glowingly. "We are like a huge ship that will always glide its way through the waters, even under the stormiest of conditions." The range of technologies covered by Yissum's portfolio is vast, and includes medicine, the life sciences, the natural sciences (physics and chemistry), ecology, applied mathematics, computer science, engineering and agriculture - one of its substantial revenue sources is from long-shelf-life tomatoes. It has recently branched out to tap into revenue sources from IP assets produced by humanities departments, such as dictionaries, databases and film rights. "We're going to expand to social science IP rights next," says Yarmut. "Knowledge is a major asset, and there is no reason that the knowledge created and stored in educational institutions should not be adequately remunerated at its market value." Some of the recent megatrends that Yissum has identified as worthy of increased attention include renewable energy, biomedical engineering and green technologies. "Green technology has been underfunded over the past 20 years, because it was overshadowed by other technology trends," says Yarmut. "But it is now attracting enormous attention." "In green technology, if you solve one problem, you might create another," he continues. "Take, for example, desalination. We've got researchers who are experts in desalination technology. By providing a source of drinking water, it has enormous environmental importance, but it also produces brine as a side effect - brine that could be a source of ocean pollution. Fortunately, we also have chemists who are developing methods for brine treatment. Systemic thinking is needed, which is why the university is the best place for green R&D - there is no company that includes an R&D department that is so multidisciplinary." The CleanTech fund was created in December 2008 by Yissum from income generated by sales of shares in MobileEye. The first research efforts to benefit from its support include a novel method for the effective clearing of poisonous mercury from gases emitted into the atmosphere by coal-fired power plants, research into developing accelerated photoreactions as a way to harness solar energy, as well as the Belkin-Agranat project of microbial biosensors. Belkin's work on the sub-ject began over ten years ago. Working with Yossi Shacham and other scientists at Tel Aviv University, Belkin created panels composed of four to six different types of bacteria, embedded in polymers placed in water environments. Using the panels added the bonus of uncovering changing patterns that could be "read like fingerprints, notes Belkin. "By using live cells we are able to detect complex series of reactions that can exist only in an intact, functioning cell," he says. To promote the commercial application of this research, he founded a company - appropriately called Canarius. Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.