The Israeli super labs turning science fiction into reality

By Josh Jackman, February 18, 2016

A saliva-based pregnancy test, a blood test to predict severe health issues, and a home printer which produces complex electronic equipment.

It sounds like science fiction, but for Israeli inventors and their clients, it is an achievable to-do list for the next two years.

Yaacov Michlin, chief executive of the Hebrew University's technology transfer arm Yissum, is responsible for helping researchers turn these innovative ideas into marketable products.

In terms of the outcomes Yissum can create from limited resources, Mr Michlin said the organisation was in the top five of its kind globally, and the largest and most active such company in Israel.

Yissum works with researchers and files applications to protect their intellectual property rights, before marketing the innovations.

The two most popular inventions at the prestigious Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month were Hebrew University products: a 3D 360-degree virtual reality camera and a machine which prints custom pictures on to your coffee.

This conveyor belt shows no signs of slowing down, Mr Michlin said. "You know what pregnancy tests look like today, with urine. What if we could do a very simple test, like this," he said, licking his finger, "and know if the woman is pregnant or not?

"We are six months from this. Then the next stage will be diagnosing pancreatic cancer in the same way."

Another product in development would mean that "in two years, you could go to a lab, give a blood sample, and in a day they would tell you if you had any neural damage or issues with getting diabetes in the near future".

Despite the prospect of these creations coming to fruition, there is no chance of complacency creeping in.

After six years in charge, Mr Michlin said his most important achievement was "transforming Yissum from a relatively passive company to a much more active, more pro-market company," and he was in London last week with this attitude in mind.

He intended to place Yissum's biotechnology holding company - which it created to fund its researchers - on the Alternative Investment Market, which could raise £21 million to be pumped into future innovations, a potential "game-changer" for the university.

He said Israel had created - through intelligence, entrepreneurial spirit and chutzpah - "an ecosystem that accelerates innovation," but warned that the country must reflect Yissum's pro-active nature if it is to defend against a "brain drain".

"Certain areas will continue to accelerate, but in other areas we have to be cautious," Mr Michlin explained.

"The government must keep investing in innovation and infrastructure, because the Chinese are buying almost everything possible and our best researchers are working half the year in Singapore, where the government is offering them huge salaries.

"You have whole sites for developers and programmers in Bangalore now. The world is catching up."

Mr Michlin said Yissum had a £700,000 fund which it used to invest in early-stage projects, giving grants of £35,000 per project.

This has enabled the university's students to provide around 40 per cent of Israeli biotechnology research and 30 per cent of Israel's academic research.

Last year saw 150 new inventions, more than 100 patents and 12 new start-ups come out of the institution.

Products which originated at the Hebrew University generate more than £1.4 billion in worldwide sales every year, while Mr Michlin said the start-ups he helped create last year had raised more than £35 million.

These inventions include Alzheimer's drugs and ovarian cancer medicines worth billions. Tomatoes and peppers with extra-long shelf lives have also been developed by Yissum. Mr Michlin said: "Israeli exports of peppers generate about £350 million per year. Without the seeds, we wouldn't have this pepper industry in the Arava Desert."

Last updated: 4:30pm, February 18 2016