Good-News Friday

Israel's Life Science & Technology Week

Israel’s Life Science & Technology Week

All the doom and gloom that dominates the news  about Israel and the Middle East makes us forget that there is plenty of good news about Israel too.  So I am going to try and make “Good News Friday” a regular if not weekly item on my blog, to give us some good cheer as we go into Shabbat. (Note: I don’t guarantee not to post more gloom and doom after this post today or any given Friday. 🙂 )

Today’s good news consists of several connected items in the field of Israel’s famed biotech and hi-tech industries.

The Times of Israel reports that thousands of people from all over the world flocked to Israel’s Agritech Exhibition this week.

This year’s AgriTech event features over 250 exhibitors, and nearly 30,000 people were expected to visit during the two-day show at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds. Visitors from abroad — some 5,000 of them — came from South America, nearly all of the Far East (including sizable delegations from China and India) and just about every country in sub-Saharan Africa, said event chairman Dani Meiri.

There are even unofficial delegations from Arab countries, Meiri told The Times of Israel. “It’s fair to say that Israel’s agricultural technology industry is pretty much immune to the ‘boycott Israel’ movement.” Most countries are desperate to increase their food production, and are perfectly willing to take advantage of Israeli technology, no matter what their politics.

Altogether, there were 80 official delegations from foreign countries, with the biggest from India, which sent 2,000 farmers to the show, with over 1,200 alone from the western Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.


In 2011, Israel exported $3.4 billion in agricultural products, the Israel Export Institute announced this week, an increase of 18% over the previous year. Over half of those exports went to Asia, the institute said


AgriTech this year included for the first time a conference specifically for investors, called AgriVest, where private investors and the heads of some large venture capital funds came to hear about investment opportunities. “There were over 100 investors there, some of them in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars, and most of whom have never done business in Israel before,” said Meiri.

An article from last week in a similar vein from the ToI tells us how Israel is set to leap forward as a biotech leader:

If the ’90s was the decade of the dot-com boom, and the “aughts” (2000-2010) the decade of Web 2.0, the current decade is shaping up to be the biotech decade — and Israel is set to play a pivotal role in the medical revolution that is just beginning to bubble up to the surface.

Here’s just the latest example of how Israeli biotechnology is changing the medical landscape: Working with stem cells developed by Israel’s Pluristem Therapeutics, doctors at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital announced this week that they were able to significantly increase the number of red blood cells in a seven-year-old girl whose condition was rapidly deteriorating. The girl was suffering from aplastic bone marrow, which prevented her body from manufacturing new red blood cells to replace those that died due to activity.


That Israel is one of the few places in the world where an experimental procedure like this could have even been attempted is due to the fact that Israel already has a well-developed stem cell research industry, said Ruti Alon, managing director of healthcare investments at Pitango Venture Capital, and chairperson of the Life Sciences division of the Israeli Advanced Technologies Organization (IATA). “For years, many countries, especially the United States, proceeded very slowly with stem cell research, while Israel continued with research,” she said. “As a result, Israeli companies are among the world’s most advanced in the field.”

Companies working on stem cell research, as well as many others doing advanced work in the biotech sphere, will be displaying their technology at this year’s BioMed 2012, which will take place in Tel Aviv on May 21-23. Many of these companies, Alon told The Times of Israel, are part of the “second wave” of Israeli biotech firms that have been doing research in their respective fields for the past seven to ten years. “In the past we saw companies doing more basic research, but now many of the biotech companies in Israel are working at advanced stages. Pharmaceuticals and other products that they have been working on are now in phase-two and -three clinical trials, and approval for market is closer than ever.” Drugs, procedures, and medical devices that are set to go to market in the coming years will turn Israel into one of the world’s leading biotech players, Alon added.


While Israeli companies developing pharmaceuticals are, in many cases, in advanced clinical trials, Israel’s medical device industry is where the action is at today. “The pharma side is moving forward,” said Alon. “We believe that many of those companies will succeed, either on their own or with partners. But the medical device industry here is very advanced, and has become very big and successful.”

Dozens of medical device companies will be attending the show, where some 6,000 visitors will see what they have to offer. “The show is a great opportunity for the Israeli biotech industry,” said Alon. “We have a lot to share with the world.”

One of those biomed devices that has been invented and developed by Israel is a sensory substitution device that enables the blind to “see” (h/t Henry).

A method developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for training blind persons to “see” through the use of a sensory substitution device (SSD) has enabled those using the system to actually “read” an eye chart with letter sizes smaller than those used in determining the international standard for blindness.

The eight congenitally blind participants in the Hebrew University test group passed the conventional eye-exam of the Snellen acuity test, technically surpassing the world-agreed criterion of the World Health Organization (WHO) for blindness and moving them to the level of (low-vision) sighted. These results were published recently in the PLoS One Journal in the US.


The Hebrew University researchers — Dr. Amir Amedi, of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences and the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada at the Hebrew University, and Ph.D. student Ella Striem-Amit — have been using a sensory substitution device developed by Dr. Peter Meijer of Holland and called “The vOICe.” The device converts images from a miniature camera into “soundscapes,” using a predictable algorithm, allowing the user to listen to and then interpret the visual information coming from the camera.

Remarkably, proficient users who have had a dedicated (but relatively brief) training at Dr. Amedi’s lab were able to use SSDs to identify complex everyday objects, locate people and their postures, read letters and words, and even identify facial expressions.

There’s not much more I can add except firstly to give a huge Kol Hakavod to all the scientists and technicians involved in these amazing inventions which benefit all of mankind; and secondly to stress the words that I highlighted above: Israel’s agritech, hi-tech and biomed industries are pretty immune to BDS.

Let the BSD-ers eat their hearts out!

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