B.C., Israel, to boost innovation in spinal cord research

From left, Bernard Bressler, Canada-Israel Industrial Research & Development Foundation’s board director; Bill Barrable, Rick Hansen Institute’s CEO; Yaakov Nahmias, Hebrew U’s Grass Center for Bioengineering director; Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s Minister of Justice; Jonathan Miodowski, RHI’s commercialization and industry relations manager; Dina Wachtel, CFHU’s executive director; Bruce Ralston, BC Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology; and Rick Glumac, BC Parliamentary Secretary for Technology. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE RICK HANSEN INSTITUTE

A groundbreaking British Columbia mission to Israel last November has resulted in a partnership between the Vancouver-based Rick Hansen Institute (RHI) and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, to boost research and innovation in the treatment of spinal cord injury.

At the launch of their BioDesign Partnership in Vancouver on Aug. 25, the two institutions declared that they will aim to grow the next generation of medical research entrepreneurs and produce intellectual property with a high potential for commercialization within one year.

In so doing, the partnership will enhance “British Columbia’s burgeoning innovation ecosystem, while improving the lives of individuals with spinal cord injury.”

Dr. Yaakov Nahmias, the director of Hebrew University’s Grass Center for Bioengineering who co-founded and heads its world-leading biodesign medical innovation program, will be lending his star power to the partnership.

In introducing Nahmias as an internationally recognized expert in tissue engineering and biotech innovation, RHI CEO Bill Barrable described the program as “one of the world’s top innovation accelerators,” which produced four new medical devices in its first year of operation in 2013.

With a population of just over 8.5 million, Israel now has 1,400 medical and biotech start-ups, with another 50 to 100 more joining the effort each year to find cures and health-care solutions.

Nahmias, who trained in Israel and the United States, said Israel is a world leader in pharmaceutical innovation and the creation of new medical devices.

“Hebrew University has one of the world’s leading biodesign programs that I’m leading. We’re essentially teaching clinicians, and business and engineering students, to become successful entrepreneurs,” he told The CJN.

“This partnership is a unique opportunity to combine the very strengths of the Israeli innovation environment with the science and strengths of the RHI.”

Under the partnership, researchers and entrepreneurs from both countries will work in Israel to speed up innovation and create start-ups focused on improving treatments for spinal cord injuries.

Nahmias said the successful start-ups will return to Canada, “where they can serve the greater community.”

But it’s not just about Israel’s innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. Nahmias, who has spent a third of his life in North America, praised Canada’s organization and vision.

Speaking to the audience of about 50 who attended the partnership’s launch, he said that, “You need both types, both cultures to make things work, to have a successful relationship.”

Named after Canadian Paralympian Rick Hansen, who suffered a spinal cord injury at 15, the RHI brings to the partnership its growing reach in Canada and around the world.

According to Barrable, RHI operates a network of sites at 31 major acute care and rehabilitation hospitals across Canada, as well as international research sites in Israel, China, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. Last November, RHI announced the launch of a registry in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, to record and study Israelis with spinal cord injuries.

“We’re committed to improving the lives of 12,000 British Columbians who have spinal cord injury,” said Barrable. RHI also serves tens of thousands of Canadians in the rest of the country, as well as millions around the world who suffer from the condition.

Spinal cord injuries also impose a heavy financial burden on the province, with new cases costing an estimated $442 million a year through expenses related to health care, morbidity, mortality and diseases.

The event drew heavyweight political participation, with federal Justice Minister and Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould and Bruce Ralston, B.C.’s new minister of jobs, trade and technology, giving remarks. Wilson-Raybould is the member of Parliament for the Vancouver Granville riding, where RHI is located.

Ralston was appointed in July as part of the new NDP-Green alliance that came to power after narrowly defeating the previous B.C. Liberal government in the provincial election in May.

In an interview with The CJN, Ralston acknowledged that the BioDesign Partnership was the direct outcome of last November’s mission to Israel, which was initiated by the previous government. There were fears that the work of the mission, led by former finance minister Mike de Jong, might be lost or delayed with the change of government.

While he has no plans to visit Israel yet, Ralston said he hopes “B.C. will follow in Israel’s footsteps,” to become a world-renowned innovator and technological leader.


Citing a list of government grants to support spinal cord injury research, Ralston told the audience that the province will work to grow the tech sector, as part of its plan to improve B.C.’s health-care services.

Amid the continuing growth in the technology sector, Canadian and Israeli tech firms will find increased opportunities to collaborate.

On Oct. 17, the Canada Israel Industrial R&D Foundation (CIIRDF) will be in Vancouver to invite B.C. companies to apply for funding for joint research and development projects with their counterparts in Israel.

Henri Rothschild, CIIRDF’s CEO, will be among three industry leaders to speak at the event, which is being organized by the Vancouver-Israeli Hi-Tech Society (VIHTS).

VIHTS board member Eran Elizur said CIIRDF will release its “call for proposals,” in co-operation with Global Affairs Canada and the Israel Innovation Authority, with over $8 million available in grants.

In an interview with The CJN, Bernard Bressler, a Vancouver-based CIIRDF board member, said the organization funds feasibility studies for a wide range of projects in biotech, agriculture, health, automotive, information technology and aerospace.

Bressler, 73, who recently stepped down as chair of the RHI after serving for six years, said CIIRDF attaches great importance to fostering co-operation between Canadian and Israeli firms, to encourage innovation and technological development.

Mooly Eden and David Sussman will also be speaking at the event. Eden, one of Israel’s most famous leaders in the high-tech sector, now serves as chairman of the University of Haifa executive committee. Sussman, a seasoned Vancouver entrepreneur, will present a snapshot of  the market for Internet of things technology.