It is time to expand US-Israel collaboration in health technologies

The Israeli life sciences sector has grown steadily in the last decade. According to a report published by the Israel Advanced Technology Industries (IATI),

Healthcare and technology [Illustrative] (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Healthcare and technology [Illustrative]
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
It is ironic that at the same time the 23rd Knesset dissolved following its failure to approve an Israeli state budget for 2020, US President Donald Trump was signing the Omnibus Spending Bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, providing his government with a budget and the American people with a second COVID-19 relief package.
Not very conspicuously, in Division H of the $1.4 trillion bill, Congress and the president approved funding for a “bilateral cooperative program” between the US and Israel for the “development of health technologies.” This legislation could bring about the rapid implementation of a program, with long-term implications beyond the present COVID-19 pandemic and the global crisis it created.
The spirit of this initiative can also be gleaned from the language included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, which authorizes a three-year program for 2021-2023.
The bilateral framework for this cooperation was established formally in an agreement signed in 2016 by then-US secretary of health and human services Sylvia M. Burwell and Israel’s health minister Ya’acov Litzman.
The Israeli life sciences sector has grown steadily in the last decade. According to a report published by the Israel Advanced Technology Industries (IATI), about 1,600 life sciences companies are active in Israel. The Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) reports that 32% of their grants were awarded to recipients in the health and medical sectors (2018 data).
In the US, the healthcare sector has always seen significant investment in research and development. The outbreak and spread of COVID-19 has provided additional justification for increased government support. The mRNA vaccines, developed and deployed in record time, could not have happened without the efforts of scientists who had been working for many years with support from government agencies such as the US National Institute of Health (NIH). In just over a year since COVID-19 was first identified, one million Israelis have already received the first dose of the vaccine. No pundit would have dared to make such a prediction.
According to the Nature Index, the US leads as the country with the largest number of collaborations with Israeli researchers. According to the same index, life sciences is one of the main areas for research publications among Israeli scientists, much of this research in collaboration with their colleagues in the US. About 30% of the projects approved by the US-Israel Bi-national Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation in the last decade have been in life sciences (including medical devices) and healthcare IT.
The US and Israel have a long tradition of research and development cooperation, including joint R&D funded or partially funded by the two governments. In addition to the defense sector, in the last two decades, the US and Israel have identified other areas, such as energy and homeland security, that are of strategic importance to both countries. Since 2009, Congress provided funding for R&D cooperation in these sectors which was matched by Israel. Boosted by private sector funding, dozens of research and development collaborative projects between US and Israeli companies have had the opportunity to develop groundbreaking technologies and applications.
The time is now ripe to expand US-Israel cooperation in health technologies, leveraging Israeli capabilities in data processing and artificial intelligence, medical devices, sensors and other related technologies. The establishment of a new program, already approved by Congress, will provide further opportunities for cooperation between Israeli entrepreneurs and start-ups and US companies seeking innovation and a competitive advantage.
The writer, who has a Ph.D. in computers and systems engineering in the field of medical imaging, is executive director of the BIRD Foundation.