Creativity vs. corona - Israeli innovation to fight the pandemic

More than 150 start-ups are working on COVID-19 solutions

Diagnostic Robotics founders from left, Yonatan Amir, Kira Radinsky and Moshe Shoham (photo credit: Courtesy)
Diagnostic Robotics founders from left, Yonatan Amir, Kira Radinsky and Moshe Shoham
(photo credit: Courtesy)

In wartime, scientists enlist to aid their countries in time of need. The war against novel coronavirus is no different. Israeli scientists and engineers are working feverishly in their labs, applying their knowledge and wisdom to find solutions. At my university, the Haifa-based Technion, researchers in 30 labs are working tirelessly to apply their knowledge to find creative solutions. The same is true throughout Israel. The result has been a truly remarkable outpouring of ideas and breakthroughs.
According to the website, Coronatech Israel, more than 150 start-ups are working on COVID-19 solutions. Here are just a few examples of corona creativity:
• Two Technion Biomedical Engineering Faculty researchers, Dr. Josué Sznitman and Dr. Yan Ostrovski, have been working for years on a way to help babies born prematurely, who have ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome), to breathe better and recover. The preemies’ problem? Lack of surfactant, crucial for the lungs’ functioning.
Sznitman notes that for 30 years now, we have known that injecting surfactant directly into neonates’ (preemies’) lungs “greatly helps their lungs function”. The success rate, he notes, is as high as 98%! So, Sznitman wondered, why not inject surfactant into the lungs of suffering COVID-19 patients? Not so simple. “Instillations in larger lungs quickly gather in pools, drowning some parts of the lungs and depriving others of the surfactant”, he explained to Haaretz reporter Asaf Ronel.
Solution? Turn the liquid surfactant into foam. “Foam has more volume than liquid, and is less affected by gravity. So it can be spread in a uniform manner throughout the lungs and restore the ‘facelift’ to the epithelial cells that [lungs] need to function properly”, he explained. Tests with rats have been highly successful. Next month pre-clinical trials begin with pigs. This innovation is particularly important, because a distressingly small percentage of COVID-19 patients put on ventilators survive.
• Vocalis: Israel’s Defense Ministry is using technology developed by voice analysis start-up Vocalis Health to see if the novel coronavirus has a unique vocal fingerprint that can help with diagnosis. Confirmed coronavirus patients are asked to give voice samples that are compared to those of a control group from the general population. The testing is being conducted at several hospitals and throughout the country, with results expected in four-six weeks.
• Israeli-founded, New York-headquartered Tyto Care has developed a handheld exam kit for remote use and raised $50 million three weeks ago. Using this device, a health care provider can examine a patient’s lungs, heart, throat, ears, skin, abdomen, and body temperature from a distance. The kit has enabled a reduction in visits to clinics and hospitals amid the crisis. It can be used for home monitoring of coronavirus patients.
• Weizmann Institute Prof. Ruth Arnon is 86 years old and continues to work hard in her lab. Her discovery of Copaxone, a drug used by millions of multiple sclerosis sufferers and produced by Teva, was pathbreaking. A headline in The Marker, an Israeli business daily, features some startling news: Arnon’s flu vaccine, developed and tested by BiondVax, a start-up, is going into Phase 3 clinical trials (the final phase).
What is different about Arnon’s flu shot is this: If it works, and it does with mice, it will protect against all flu viruses. So we will need just one shot, like mumps and measles vaccine, and not new shots every fall.
COVID-19 is not flu. Arnon’s vaccine will not affect coronavirus. But if it saves deaths from common flu, during this Fall’s anticipated flu season, it can save many thousands of lives. The BiondVax vaccine is now completing the final Phase 3 clinical trial.
• 31-year-old Stav Bar, a mechanical engineer employed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., joined six other engineers and working in a basement at Assuta Hospital, Ramat HaHayal, quickly developed a cheap simple ventilator, one that can be built quickly.
THE LIST is endless. Israeli innovation is not known for painstaking detailed strategic planning. But it is world-famous for improvisation – using and adapting what exists to meet current needs, in just days or weeks. A great example is Diagnostic Robotics, founded by Dr. Kira Radinsky, Yonatan Amir, both Technion alums, and Technion Professor Moshe Shoham.
I’ve written about Radinsky before (“Predicting the Future”, The Report, Oct. 7, 2013), noting how she emigrated to Israel as a child from Ukraine, studied computer science at Technion when she was 15, won the Israel Defense Prize at age 19, earned a black belt in karate, earned 10 patents, married, finished her Ph.D., and launched a promising start-up – all by the age of 27.
The latest start-up she has co-founded is called Diagnostic Robotics. Its original goal was to tackle embattled emergency rooms in hospitals. The company used artificial intelligence to predict the patient load in advance and to prepare the hospital in advance in order to ease or manage the load. It does this by supporting doctors in assigning priorities to patients and deciding about the possible medical diagnosis.
According to press reports, “The Diagnostic Robotics leadership team quickly realized that, with just a few tweaks, the same platform could be used to triage patients possibly infected with the novel coronavirus…. The system is now integrated with the Health Ministry, all four of Israel’s HMOs and Magen David Adom system – in start-up language, this was a turn-on-a-dime ‘pivot’ – adapting an existing product or service for a different use.
I asked company spokesperson Michal Kabatznik to supply some details.
Your Diagnostic Robotics software used artificial intelligence and machine learning to integrate data and help ‘triage’ those who may visit emergency medicine. (Triage is assigning degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients or casualties). Can you please supply a few details about how you organized to implement this pivot? And how you got the health maintenance organizations and Ministry of Health onboard?
During the early days of COVID-19 we predicted that the virus would spread in Israel. [Note: The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was detected only on February 21]. Starting in the first week of March, our dedicated team worked around the clock to create the extension to our existing platform and create a one-stop shop for managing the disease, an end-to-end centralized solution for COVID-19 treatment. We adapted the COVID protocol based on CDC (US Centers for Disease Control) guidance and data received from Italy and South Korea. As the virus initially began to spread in Israel, we reached out to the Ministry of Health to offer our help in the fight against COVID-19. Together, we understood their needs and how our technology could help and created the relevant platform. The Ministry brought in the health maintenance organizations and Magen David Adom.
Where and how is your software is being used in the US and abroad?
We recently launched our platform in partnership with the State of Rhode Island. We are in advanced conversations with other states, leading healthcare providers and some of the top hospital systems in the US. There will be some big announcements in the coming days. In addition to the US, we have entered into a global partnership with Salesforce (online customer relationship management) and Deloitte (global consultancy) on the COVID360 platform and have implemented the first manifestations of this partnership in the state of Odisha in India – our technology is available to the 50 million residents there.
THE NOVEL coronavirus has wreaked havoc with the Israel economy. Hi-tech has not escaped. The Israel Venture Center Research Center reports that venture investment in start-ups plunged by half in March, and the decline continued in April. But a few sectors are thriving – cyber security, remote (online) services and digital medicine.
A leading Israeli venture capitalist, Itai Harel, managing partner of Pitango, observed that “the coronavirus is expected to significantly accelerate changes in medicine. What was supposed to take ten years is going to happen inside a year. Not just digitization of medical procedures but also a transition from tele-medicine to real-time medicine and health care based on artificial intelligence.”
Apple founder Steve Jobs once remarked that it is more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy. Young Israelis serve in the Navy, Army and Air Force – and many then spend a year abroad shedding the shackles of discipline and bureaucracy and go on to become ‘pirates’ (entrepreneurs).
Some of those pirates are now hard at work tackling the global pandemic, taking shortcuts and breaking the rules. As billions of people undergo lockdown and economies the world over walk the plank, a fierce conflict exists between creativity and coronavirus.
All the evidence suggests, creativity will prevail in the end.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com