ZICHRON YAAKOV, Israel - How deserving is biotechnology of special attention? Minister of Industry and Trade Ran Cohen would like to amend the R&D law to give government assistance priority to biotechnology companies.

He proposed the possibility of a special allocation to the Office of the Chief Scientist from the R&D budget to give special treatment to innovation, especially in biotechnology. "While investment in this sector has accelerated in the last decade, the sector needs special support from academic personnel, requires reasonably large investment and has long-term incubation of ideas, albeit with also great promise for the future," he said

The outgoing chief scientist of the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MoIT), Orna Berry, focused on promoting the local biotechnology industry which was "disappointing in pace and in the lack of clear government plans for promoting the field," for example in the timely revision of the R&D law, she said.

Berry told BioWorld International that she saw support for biotechnology as integral to Israel maintaining a "competitive edge on an international level in leading fields like information technology, telecommunications and the Internet." One of her initiatives was to invite the presidents of the universities into a forum to bring business more directly into academia. "To allow those university departments to take a greater interest and a greater share in their science-based companies and also to extract higher compensation for their involvement that could be shared with those more basic science projects, creating fertile ground for all ventures," she said.

The incoming MoIT chief scientist, Carmel Vernia, is studying the situation and beginning to learn what is needed from all points of view, according to spokesman Uri Stein. He acknowledged a big push toward "integrating free market forces," but said that without seeing the greater picture and weighing all of the inputs, it was impossible to prefer any option. The Finance Ministry is willing to support all actions, as long as they cost nothing.

"Israel has the wherewithal to develop a large and competitive biomed industry and to capitalize on the many opportunities to make it a potent force in the world biotech industry. Any delay on Israel's part will make it more difficult to become a global player in the future," Ilan Kusiatin told BioWorld International.

A report that Kusiatin prepared for the Ministry of Industry and Trade was extracted in the THCG Giza Israel IVA (Israel Venture Association) 2000 Yearbook. Kusiatin said it would require a massive effort by the business sector, but foremost by the government to take the life sciences that feed Israel's biomedical industry with its 100 small and young biotechnology firms contributing some 0.2 percent of GDP up to 1 percent to 1.5 percent during the next 10 years.

"This ambitious goal is a target that could not likely be attained if left solely to free enterprise," Kusiatin said. He said direct government subsidies and the active involvement of big pharmas and multinational biotech companies are required, which until now have mainly used the country for R&D and a source of early stage ideas. Kusiatin also sees that the "large and significant pharmaceutical and biomed companies could provide experienced personnel, needed to fill the management gap" and to "establish the R&D centers and/or manufacturing facilities needed to bring the promise of biotech to fruition."

Instead of trying to force more investment from venture capital, he foresees more "strategic partnerships, needed to provide from 25 percent to 33 percent of the necessary startup investments, and especially more financial support for Israel's biotech companies by the Office of the Chief Scientist."

Kusiatin notes that since "university research laboratories have so far been the primary source for new ideas and discoveries in the life sciences, it will be necessary to strengthen and significantly increase this undirected research as a long-term source of new products. He said the virtual absence of clinical researcher/business people contrasts sharply with the situation in the U.S., where "medical doctors make up a significant part of biomed company founders."