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How did Israel not become a biotechnology powerhouse?

. A series of wrong decisions, misunderstanding and lack of management ability disrupted the whole process. After two years of apparent progress, the flowering of words and hopes, the process collapsed to the starting point, and the field faced a broken trough

Moshe Vigdor

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A Monitor company report that dealt with the future of biotechnology in Israel created high expectations and hopes that this field - in which Israel has a prominent scientific advantage compared to other developed countries in the West - will also become a promising economic field. The report submitted on January 21, 2001 emphasized the importance of establishing an extensive biotechnology industry; This will turn Israel from a leading scientific center in the field of biotechnology into a powerhouse of the biotechnology industry.

Something went wrong on the way. A series of wrong decisions, misunderstanding and lack of management ability disrupted the whole process. After two years of apparent progress, the flowering of words and hopes, the process collapsed to the starting point, and the field faced a broken trough.

All the groups that won the tender for the biotech incubators canceled their participation in it a long time ago, even though they were offered generous financial assistance. Establishing biotechnological incubators that will be centers of diverse activity in various fields and marketing them to leading economic factors while providing financial assistance within the framework of an incubator, was a correct and promising idea economically and in terms of the development of the biotechnology industry. This is an investment-intensive field that requires patience and long-term vision.

The tender initiated by the Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Industry and Trade was intended to pool resources and give a huge boost to activity in the field of the biotechnology industry. This activity was based on the leading scientific biotechnological centers in Israel. The financial assistance offered by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry for the establishment of the greenhouses was very impressive. Before the tender, it seemed that demand was high and that the entire field of biotechnology was facing an unprecedented boom. Several diverse groups that came together for the tender included investors, venture capital funds and industrial companies - all leading and reputable in Israel and abroad.

It was then that the chief scientist, Carmel Vernia, decided not to allow the universities' application companies to integrate into these groups. The insistence of the chief scientist was inexplicable, and in retrospect it also turned out to be wrong. It is clear that if the implementation companies had been integrated within the groups that entered the tender, they would have acted as a capturing, stabilizing and breathing factor that knows the field well. In this way, the collapse of the process to establish the greenhouses could have been avoided.

The attempt led by the Minister of Industry and Trade at the time, Dalia Itzik - contrary to the opinion of the chief scientist - to oblige one greenhouse to operate in Jerusalem, was also unsuccessful; Biotechnological research on the largest scale is done in the research laboratories of the Hebrew University and alongside them in the laboratories of the Hadassah Hospital. The chief scientist objected to giving priority to Jerusalem - even though it is the leading center in the field. The minister, despite her efforts, ultimately failed to implement the decision. Meanwhile, the previous Chief Scientist finished his position and left the office after conflicts and disagreements.

Today, after more than two years of efforts and attempts, and after considerable sums of money were invested, the process has returned to the starting point. In the meantime, irreparable damage was caused to Israel: precious years in which the biotechnology industry could have been promoted went down the drain because of wrong decisions, unnecessary insistence, and the government's inability to implement decisions.

The field of biotechnology requires special expertise and professional understanding, especially regarding the aspect of the complex connection between academic scientific research and industry. This is a synergistic connection, which holds within it a huge potential for economic development, among others in the fields of medicine, food and the environment.

The economic future of the State of Israel is largely rooted in the field of biotechnology and its application as an extensive industrial activity. Israel is one of the leading centers of biotechnological knowledge in the world. However, all this is not enough. To turn knowledge into a biotechnology industry, which produces advanced products with high added value - central investment and encouragement in combined public and private funding is necessary.

It is difficult to get rid of the impression that the treatment of biotechnology is done with tools and parameters that encourage the high-tech industry and with the standards of this industry, a step that turned out to be a serious mistake. It is to be regretted that the idea of ​​the biotechnological incubators, which would have helped in turning knowledge into products, was brought up by Boser even though all the conditions for its success were met. All that was needed was a few factors that would understand the field and know how to make the right decisions.

This is the time when the new Minister of Commerce, Industry and Employment, Ehud Olmert, must act together with the chief scientist of his office, Eli Ofer, to bring about the long-awaited change. They must invest in the fields of biotechnology, in the projects of the biotechnology incubators, initiate collaborations with the leading research institutions and share with the university application companies - to lead to an industrial application of the broad scientific biotechnological knowledge that exists in Israel. In this way it will be possible to develop the biotechnology industry. This will be an unparalleled breakthrough.

* The author is the vice president and CEO of the Hebrew University, and a special advisor to UNESCO

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