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Growing life sciences at home, in the desert

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Friday, August 20th, 2010

Hoping to reverse Israel’s brain and biotech innovation drain, the new NGO BioNegev plans to transform the Negev Desert into a major biotechnology hub.

Israeli biotech companies like Given Imaging, which has developed a camera in a pill, are improving lives worldwide. Now Shay Yarkoni hopes to create a biocluster in Israel’s Negev desert.

Israel is known for a few things beside camels, falafel, the Old City of Jerusalem and ‘the conflict.’ The country’s high-tech and telecom entrepreneurs are on investors’ watch lists; its agriculture industry reaps some of the juiciest fruits for Europe; and biotech innovation – the merging of life sciences with medical applications – is one of its key industries.

However, rather than develop their brilliant biotech ideas at home, local scientists tend to seek to sell them abroad. This means that many potentially life-changing concepts are scooped up to be developed elsewhere, and in some cases they never see the light. Local biotech entrepreneur Shay Yarkoni is looking to reverse the trend of exporting brains and ideas, with his newly-launched NGO BioNegev.

Yarkoni is building a powerful biocluster of companies in the Negev region with counsel from the European Union and in partnership with Bar-Ilan University, local incubators, municipalities and government bodies. He is already signing deals with shareholders, including a local hospital. So far, the annual Biomed international conference has provided access to Israel’s thousand or so biotech companies, and with drugs like TEVA’s Copaxone for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, and the camera-in-a-pill made by Given Imaging, Israeli pharma companies and medical device innovators have unquestionably improved lives across the globe.

Yarkoni is working to increase successes like these, by growing Israeli biotechnologies in a place where so far little has flourished, and transforming Israel’s Negev Desert, 70 miles or so south of Tel Aviv, into a biotechnology hub. His plan is to offer young researchers and companies a leg up into the industry from a location where they can develop and mature technologies and export them abroad.

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