JERUSALEM — Agricultural biotechnology in Israel is an undiscovered treasure "primarily characterized by insufficient investment and abundant know-how," said Ilan Heth, deputy chair of research and development at the Hebrew University, of Jerusalem. "In my opinion, investors have wrongly backed away from investing in the field, having 'discovered' the medical sector for its rapid development."
Heth, considered one of Israel's most eminent authorities in agricultural biotechnology, won the Israel Prize for his achievements. He said he is concerned that Israeli agricultural biotechnology is neglected by public and private investors, which is "ironic, because the average period of time between initial development of an agricultural biotechnology product and its market release is less than half of the time required for the medical field."
"Elsewhere in the world, the potential is recognized," he added. "And the agricultural sector in Israel is so highly developed. The new frontiers of research and development include innovations such as tissue culture forons in the fields of pest extermination and crop control; nutritional enhancement; and environmental quality.
The Weizmann Institute, the Volcani Institute and universities are now engaged in studies with possible commercial applications. The problem, Heth said, is that foreign companies are acquiring the know-how and developing and manufacturing it abroad. One study is working on alternatives to using methyl bromide, a harmful pesticide identified by international convention calling for an end to its manufacture.
Start-Up Fund Not Adopted
"In Europe," Heth said, "functional nutrition is catching on very quickly, trying to isolate natural sources of antioxidants and other substances that could prevent disease and promote better health, attracting a growing number of companies to this field of biotechnology. In Israel, as a result of insignificant government support, there are few commercial biotechnology firms on the scale of the support of the electronics and communications industries, which have blossomed during the past decade."
Heth said a government-appointed committee on biotechnology suggested the establishment of a $100 million fund to underwrite start-ups. If and when the companies succeed, the government's investment would be repaid, but the proposal was not adopted. Heth is concerned that missing this opportunity will be a permanent blow to the biotech industry and to the Israeli economy.
Ilan Levita, CEO of Machteshim-Agan, the government marketing wing for agricultural biotechnology, said the "underdog position of Israel vis-a-vis the global market is a well-known fact. Israel suffers from inadequate investment and relative distance from the market." The most common crops grown in the world — soy and rice — do not grow in Israel, and therefore the country has little or no relevant know-how, he said. Instead, Israeli entrepreneurs and companies have come to focus on specific niches, and have developed a great deal of know-how in gene isolation and transfer of genetic traits, having made multiple innovations in the bioengineered tomato.
Machteshim-Agan is now establishing a $5 million agricultural biotechnology investment fund along with seed producer Hazera, having invested in LycoRed Natural Products, which is a start-up bioengineering new strains of tomatoes rich in lycopene, a natural carotenoid that gives the red color to the tomato and a powerful antioxidant. LycoRed's annual sales total about $8 million, coming from marketing lycopene to companies that manufacture food additives and cosmetics. But Levita predicts the humble tomato will be discovered as a natural pharmaceutical, bridging the gap between agricultural and medical biotechnology. *