The brain is a multi-faceted topic addressed by a range of disciplines in academia, medicine and industry. In recent years, we are witnessing emerging applied research and development of breakthrough technologies for dealing with brain-related disease, from drugs for Alzheimer’s disease through neuro-stimulation for treating depression, to mobile applications that measure and boost cognitive functioning. Moreover, neurotechnologies are going beyond healthcare today, being applied in next-generation cars, computers and video games.
Recognizing these developments, some of the world's developed nations have established dedicated government funds that support and help brain research. In the USA, for example, President Obama announced a $300 million, state-funded BRAIN initiative on brain technology in 2013, understanding that 1 out of every 3 people will suffer a brain disorder, disease or injury. Canada too has established a government fund that supports brain research companies to the tune of $20 million a year. Most government spending on these initiatives is matched by private organizations.
Miri Polachek, Executive Director of Israel Brain Technologies (IBT), an NGO that helps create and nurture an entrepreneurial ecosystem for brain technologies, and Dr. Rafi Gidron, the NGO’s Founder and Chairman, have made it their mission to turn Israel into an international hub for brain technologies. Polachek says that combining IBT's activities with support and collaboration from government, industry, entrepreneurs, scientists, physicians and investors could make Israel "The Brain Nation", positioning it at the forefront of the global brain industry. "Israel placed science and technology high on its economic development priority scale years ago and spends 4%-5% of its GDP on R&D every year. This is one of the highest rates in the world. As small as it is, Israel has become a center of innovation with an emphasis on distinctly technological areas," she adds.
"Neurotechnology is the next leadership opportunity for Israeli technology. It may be a huge challenge but those who surmount it will transform the world we live in."
Neurotechnology is an industry in the making. So where's the problem?
"Figures show that Israel's rate of technological experts, engineers and scientists is significantly higher than anywhere in the world. The brightest minds are already here and they need to channel their entrepreneurial and innovative passion into this critical field of brain technologies. Every year, hundreds of students graduate from the neuroscience faculties in Israel with vast knowledge. We must do everything in our power to keep them here, and provide them with exciting opportunities so they will not take their huge potential elsewhere. We need to actively support this industry, in the same way that other strategic areas, such as the water, energy, fuel substitutes and cyber industries are being supported. With over 2 billion people around the world, suffering from conditions that originate in the brain, this area must receive our undivided attention," says Polachek.
Brain researchers are usually scientists or physicians. They are not technologically-savvy…
Polachek explains that a growing number of physicians and researchers from various fields and disciplines are involved today in applicative areas, developing breakthrough technologies. In addition, she says, it is wrong to assume that brain technologies rely on researchers and scientists from the life sciences arena only: "Many neuro-technological challenges actually involve computation and quantification, tasks addressed by mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers. Neurotechnology is about the integration of various knowledge disciplines and collaboration by the best clinicians, biologists and psychologists with engineers, software developers, and electronics and physics experts. The best examples include the technological developments that connect the brain to instruments in the patient's surroundings to help overcome multiple physical limitations that impact the lives of millions of people in the world."
What exactly do you do to advance this integration?
"IBT works in several channels: we constitute Israel's knowledge hub on all aspects of brain technologies. Overseas delegations, potential investors and entrepreneurs turn to us for information. We establish the link between the various parties, entrepreneurs, researchers, investors, and the like. We do it in a range of ways: every two years we hold Braintech Israel, an international conference that attracts some 1,000 participants and opinion leaders. The next conference is scheduled for March 6-7, 2017. Every month we also hold a meetup in Israel on a selected theme to stir the conversation in the community.”
“IBT also helps the community keep abreast of braintech developments in Israel and abroad with relevant content, coverage of companies and interesting developments on our blog and website, social media channels and newsletter, which reaches over 2,500 people."
In 2015, IBT launched Brainnovations, the first accelerator in Israel that supports brain-related startups. Following a highly successful first cycle, the second cycle is now underway. The accelerator is run by Dr. Yael Fuchs Shlomai. Program partners include life science multionationals Boston Scientific, Sunovion, Teva and Pfizer, as well KDF law firm, EY, Reinhold Cohn, Poalim Hitech, Rainbow Medical, Physiologic and Mediclever. For each cycle, a committee comprising senior industry executives selects eight promising teams from a pool of over 50 applicants. These teams receive close mentoring and expert consulting on a range of success-critical areas for four months. Each class ends with a Demo Day in which the teams present their work to some 100 investors interested in their respective fields. "We take great pride in Brainnovations," says Polachek. "It's inspiring to see the significant progress that these startups make during our program, as they develop promising technologies for ADHD, Parkinson's disease, dementia, autism and more . Each one of these companies has the potential to grow into a large corporation that employs dozens or hundreds of people and contributes to the Israeli economy, let alone improve the lives of millions of people."
Currently, IBT is also initiating a membership program for Israel's brain industry and invites all companies active in this area to join. With membership fees and matching government funding, , IBT will be able to organize many seminars and workshops, with leading experts from Israel and abroad, as well as other programs that aim to help local companies advance their technological developments and ensure they are always at the forefront of emerging science and technology.
What else needs to be done to accelerate the industry and advance Israel as a leader in brain technologies?
Firstly, more funding is required for startups in their very early stages.
Secondly, non-profit organizations, such as IBT, need to be funded to serve as a physical hub in the community and place our activities there: the accelerator, the meetings, etc. I'm dreaming about the Brain Technology Innovation Center… The sources for this funding can be the government, private donors and multinational corporations.
In conclusion, says Polachek, it is essential that the government and the investment community understand the economic impact of the wave of new neurotech developments and allocate resources to support it.
"Israel has excellent brain research centers and medical centers, with world-renowned researchers, clinicians and gifted students. We need to combine this strong foundation with entrepreneurship and investments. Building a strong platform to create and support this ecosystem will accelerate brain technology innovation and commercialization, and will position Israel as the Brain Nation, on top of its current status as the Startup Nation.”
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on August 10, 2016
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