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Israel’s medical pioneers aim for global acclaim

JERUSALEM — In a quiet office in an industrial park in Jerusalem, an Israeli woman in a white coat slowly binds a black coil to the surface of a metal dome. She is creating the insides of a helmet that may help treat millions of people with clinical depression.

JERUSALEM — In a quiet office in an industrial park in Jerusalem, an Israeli woman in a white coat slowly binds a black coil to the surface of a metal dome. She is creating the insides of a helmet that may help treat millions of people with clinical depression.

The machine is made by Brainsway, a Tel Aviv-listed medical devices company, which has a market capitalisation of about US$260 million (S$355 million). It has pioneered a treatment known as “deep transcranial magnetic stimulation”, using a helmet to aim magnetic fields at a patient’s brain tissues. This can target the reward system in the brain, helping to counter and relieve symptoms of depression.

Unlike other treatments, such as drugs or electroconvulsive therapy, the patient suffers no major side effects or significant pain. The device feels like wearing a bicycle helmet with a woodpecker knocking on the frame.

“It’s the first time in neuroscience we have a technology that non-invasively influences the deep structures of the brain,” said Mr Ronen Segal, vice-president of research and development at Brainsway. “Patients come in for daily sessions of 20 minutes a day, five times a week over a month.”

Brainsway is not an isolated medical pioneer. Israel is home to 700 medical devices companies, according to media reports, and has the most medical device patents per capita in the world.

“What is unique about Israel is that it is full of dissatisfied people,” said Mr Jonathan Adiri, a serial entrepreneur who was Israel’s chief technology officer under former president Shimon Peres. He then founded Healthy.io, a system that can analyse pictures taken on a smartphone to help diagnose patients.

“That is conducive for science because you challenge the status quo in science, or how business is done, we always challenge it,” he said.

Despite the number of companies on the scene, however, Israel has yet to produce a large global leader in medical devices equivalent to Teva, the Israeli pharmaceuticals group.

“How do you (turn) a great idea (into) a great company?” said Mr Segal.

“We have one Teva in pharma, but you don’t have one in medical devices. We have the potential of being there … but Brainsway will have to grow to be a global company, not an Israeli company … (we must learn) that the way you sell a depression treatment in Japan is different from how you sell in the United States.”

Part of the problem is down to heavy global regulation of medical treatments and the length of time it takes to develop medical technology.

Long lead-times do not work well for Israel’s fast-moving digital groups, which tend to keep costs down and look to generate revenues quickly, often selling out to a corporate giant in order to make a swift and profitable “exit”.

One of those hoping to become a lasting success is Mr Avner Halperin, chief executive of EarlySense, makers of sensors that can be placed under a mattress to allow doctors and nurses to monitor a patient’s vital signs remotely.

The company claims the information from its sensors has so far helped physicians save the lives of 300 people and has reduced hospitalisation days by 20,000.

But Mr Halperin says the 11-year-old company is likely to require an additional funding round — on top of about US$75 million already raised from investors — before it can consider going public. “We know it’s a marathon,” said Mr Halperin. “In the medical world, it takes something in the order of 10 to 20 years to make real change.” THE FINANCIAL TIMES

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