BioWorld International Correspondent

ZICHRON YA'AKOV, Israel - Bio-Tech Israel 2004, the third annual event of the biotechnology sector, showcased a maturing industry of more than 220 companies and a healthy, growing infrastructure.

Eli Opper, the chief scientist of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, addressed the 1,200 registrants and 300 foreign visitors, plus some 200 local and foreign exhibitors. In contrast, Bio-Tech Israel 2003 brought just 30 foreign attendees.

Opper said that the government devoted about $95 million in 2003 to biotechnology. Venture capital invested $184 million in 97 life science companies (up 5 percent from 2002), said Efrat Zakai, director of research of the IVC Israel Venture Capital Research Center in Tel Aviv. Of that money, $62 million was in biotechnology.

Opper told BioWorld International, "I am committed to see biotechnology flourish as a sector and to fulfill the government's 2001 declaration of biotechnology as a National Project.'"

Opper said, "We expect the government commitment to double in the next 10 years, through new initiatives that specifically address the special needs of biotechnology," such as NOFAR, which bridges the incubation period in pre-industrial academia.

The Israeli biotech pipeline has 11 therapeutic products in Phase I trials, 10 drugs in Phase II or III, with more than 50 in preclinical testing, placing Israel behind the UK and Switzerland, but ahead of France and Germany, said Ronit Bendori, who heads life sciences at Evergreen Partners Ltd. in Tel Aviv. She told BioWorld International that about one-third of the 70 venture capital firms in Israel are invested in biotechnology.

The growing pains of the industry prompted the creation of three biotechnology initiatives. The first is the Israel Biotech Corporate Strategy Network.

"All biotech company officials are invited to join," said Brian Berman, who initiated the effort late in February. Berman, chief financial officer of D-Pharm Ltd., of Rehovot, told BioWorld International: "We wanted a forum for senior executives in biotech to [talk] and to share their experiences on corporate strategy with their colleagues in the newer companies."

So far, about 35 senior officers in finance and corporate and business development have signed up "to meet every month and to be on call as mentors and coaches as needed," Berman said, adding that "it is not trivial to find the right person to answer specific pressing questions, even though they may literally be just across the road."

Berman emphasized that "this is not, nor is it intended to become, a lobby," because there already are other lobbies, such as Israel Venture Association, Israel Biotechnology Organization, Pharma Israel and the Israeli Forum of Chief Financial Officers.

The two other initiatives were announced in separate sessions of the U.S.-Israel Binational Biotechnology Summit, a series of meetings and workshops sponsored by the United States-Israel Science and Technology Commission and the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Foundation.

The Israel Life Sciences Initiative was announced by Ruth Alon as her "personal initiative" during the workshop "Enterprise Networking to Build a Biotechnology Cluster."

Arnold Brenner, executive director of the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Foundation, said the foundation had mounted the summit to build a biotechnology cluster and to coordinate and integrate diverse activities within Israel and with the U.S.

Alon, a partner in Pitango Venture Capital in Tel Aviv, explained that the website (www.Ilsi.org.il) was a gift from Pitango. Alon invited attendees to visit the website to register interests and goals.

The third initiative was announced by Mina Teicher, vice president for research at the Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan. It aimed to create a commission for the advancement of women in science and technology. Teicher, appointed to head the initiative, said her goal was to facilitate cooperation and to build connections that would show the benefit of integrating women into the higher echelons of the life sciences, and particularly into biotechnology, where few reach senior levels.

"There is room for all," she said. "We just need to find the right means and legislation."