Israel: An emerging brain tech centre

We look at Israel’s bid to be a “global brain technology hub”

In 2010 Israel’s President Shimon Peres vowed to create a brain technology hub in Israel. And it seems to be getting there, albeit slowly. As Chaka Fattah, a Democrat of Pennsylvania told the Times of Israel recently:

“The US and Europe may have more breakthroughs in neuroscience, but you have to put that in perspective. The US has 350 million people, and there are 28 countries in the European Union. Israel is third behind these countries in its neuroscience developments, but per capita it is way ahead of everyone.”

Aside from the massive publicity around Israel as a startup nation, its great wealth of universities and emphasis on health and neuroscience, there has also been a concerted push to deliver on the President Peres’ ambitions. At the forefront of this is Israel Brain Technologies (IBT) “whose mission is to turn Israel into a global brain technology and research hub”.

Key to this, explains Miri Polachek the executive director of IBT is “bringing people from all over the world. The brain is such a complex organ, global collaboration is key.” This is achieved through ongoing designations of high-profile representatives along with its annual BrainTech conference, which ran for its second year this March in Tel Aviv. Polachek describes a constant growth of startups in the sphere – there are now close to a 100 companies – this is driven by plenty of collaboration and funding initiatives.

“Brain tech is a world changing field,” says Polachek. On the one hand it is touching on the world’s most pressing needs: depression, Alzheimer’s and ADHD. On the other hand Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) and simple EEG headsets are making brain technology more accessible to consumers through gaming and the quantified self.

The trouble is brain technology is a huge sphere which covers a wide range of issues and techniques. At the top level it incorporates the full gamut of academics, specialists and commercial enterprises, along with enthusiastic programmers driving momentum from the ground up.

Brainsway, which provides treatment for a wide range of brain disorders like depression and has some of the only FDA approved kit in the world, hails from Israel. “The brain is an electrical machine more than anything else. And if you want to treat it in the right way you need to treat it with electricity, with electrical energy, and this is what we’re trying to do,” Ronen Segal, CEO, told us last year.

Segal also sits on the Brain Stimulation & Monitoring Technologies Consortium. This is sponsored by the Israeli government and has the objective of determining which types of patients would be better with which types of treatment.

At the more consumer level, Hamutal Meridor organised the world’s first brain hack event in Israel two years ago and is a Director at IBT. She has been particularly involved in generating interest amongst ordinary techies. “I was passionate about connecting my people,” she explains.

Overall it is a very grassroots scene. Many people have day jobs and Meridor sees the split as around 50% developers, 25% neuroscientists, while 25% are other things like artists and designers. “There is a lot of enthusiasm” and people are extremely active on social media. She tells us around 100 people attended this year’s hackathon and there were about 70 at the last demo.

“[There are] a lot of startups which deal with solving problems for patients,” says Meridor. There are also numerous companies which deal with active brain stimulation – “we’ve seen a lot of these in the last five years” along with a “big DIY brain stimulation movement”. The hacker movement is very hands on and will try stuff. There are people out there who “just zap themselves” she says.

Like elsewhere, there are startups which help patients manage their disease, those that deal in brain drugs and various organisations which deal with neuro gaming. One local startup is even developing a BCI headset, although Neuro Steer just provides a landing page at present and is nowhere near consumer ready yet.  “I’m rooting for everyone,” says Hamutal. “The more companies that succeed the better.”

Israel may not be the absolute world leader in brain technology yet. But it is up there in the top few markets and it does seem intent on carving out a specialism for itself which is half the battle won.

Besides there is everything to play for. As President Peres put it in 2012: “There is no doubt that brain research in the next decade will revolutionise our lives and impact such major domains as medicine, education, computing, and the human mind, to name but some.”

“Moreover, it will not only relieve the suffering of patients of such debilitating diseases as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, but it will also engender large economic rewards as well.”