On this week’s episode of the Talking Tech Transfer podcast, we talk to Larry Loev, chief executive of Ariel Scientific Innovations, about leading a tech transfer office for a young but ambitious university, the opportunities of tech transfer in a country famed for its startup ecosystem and how to bring innovation to oenology.
Thierry Heles: Larry, thank you very much for joining us on the podcast today.
Larry Loev: It is a pleasure to be with you.
Heles: To kick things off maybe you can give us a brief overview of what Ariel Scientific Innovations does and perhaps give us some numbers as well?
Loev: We are the technology commercialisation office for Ariel University, located in central Israel. We are Israel’s youngest and fastest growing university with about 15,000 students. The university received accreditation only in 2012. Everything is brand new. We are getting off the ground and doing what a typical technology transfer office does. All those activities that I am sure you are very well-versed in and your listeners are as well: trying to scout out the technologies coming out of the laboratories, obtain translational research funding for that patent protection, bringing them to the good of the public by partnering with entrepreneurs, startups and established companies to develop them into products and services. That is in a nutshell what we are. It is a model that exists in many universities that have research around the world.
Heles: Of course. Let us get this one straight out of the way at the top, the bad news first. How has the pandemic affected you and your work?
Loev: Honestly, not too much, I have to say. Our office has been able to continue its own internal work. The laboratories have slowed down a bit and so the research progress has slowed a bit, but the commercial activity really has not slowed down that much. I would say that the effect on our office and our activities has been minimal. If anything, there might be a slight increase in productivity because we do not have that annoying business of students running around the campus bothering us and so we are able to get a lot more done that way.
The one big thing that puts a little bit of a pall is the amount of networking that you can do. We used to go five to 10 conferences abroad a year, also in Israel. It is not the same when you try to do an event with Zoom. The connections just are not as personal as they are when you network face-to-face. That is the biggest change we have seen that reduces our footprint in being able to get out there and make deals with new representatives and get to know new companies. So that is where we are.
Heles: That is something I hear from a lot of people that especially the serendipitous meetings where you go to a conference with 500 people, you might know you have meetings with 10, 15, 20 of them, and then you bump into another 15, 20 people. Some of those are going to be people that you would not have come across otherwise. And if you stare at a Zoom screen with the gallery view, you are not going to.
Loev: You are absolutely right, that is true.
Heles: I am glad it has not impacted your business operations as much though. That is always good to hear. You worked in industry before you joined Ramot at Tel Aviv University, and then Ariel Scientific Innovations. What prompted you to move into university tech transfer and what has made you stick around?
Loev: What prompted me to get into it was desperation. I was out of a job in 2006 for about seven or eight months. I went to try something in artistry and calligraphy and they were so much fun, but I was not making any money at them. As I went through my Rolodex looking for a job, it cropped up. I knew nothing about technology, academic technology transfer, and I got lucky enough to be selected at Tel Aviv University. You are talking about serendipity – I just got lucky and fell into the job.
On the other hand, this is the greatest job in the world. It has got everything: sex, violence, money. It has got it all. Okay the sex is a little bit weak, it is not that much…
Heles: Very Game of Thrones.
Loev: You are on cutting edge of science. You are in the business world. You get to interface with all this cool new technology, and for a guy like me that does not like working in a huge team of hundreds on a small part of a project, you get responsibility. It is a great job to have.
I know what is going on at least certainly in Israel in the technology transfer offices, the turnover is very low because it is such a great opportunity and such a great job to have. People like to stick around because it is so much fun.
Heles: I think that is true in a lot of places. I know some places like MIT, Stanford before their current people, they helped CEOs that were in charge for 20, 25 years. It seems to be a career where people, once they are in it, hardly anyone manages to get out.
Loev: It also becomes a bit of a honey trap, the truth is, because you know, every profession these days is a certain track and once you get off the track, you get left behind. It gets a little bit more difficult to be cutting edge in the science now, for example. If I wanted to go back, I am a physicist in training, over the last 15 years I have lost the edge on that. I could go into the business side of things maybe, but it is harder for me to go back and be a vice-president of R&D because after 15 years of doing something else it is hard to do that, things have passed you by a little bit.
Heles: As you said, Ariel is a very young university, eight years old and Ariel Scientific Innovations itself is also a recent creation set up in 2006, if the LinkedIn page is to be believed. What are some of the challenges and opportunities for such a young institution?
Loev: Obvious challenges are that you do not have a strong and advanced portfolio of research that is happening. It is a cascade because you need to attract high-quality researchers and they need to attract high-quality students, and then you need the necessary budgets.
To get that ball rolling really takes a lot of time. Most of our technologies are really, really, really early stage, low budget. Until our patent portfolio can become a little bit more mature, so you end up paying huge amounts of maybe provisional protection and maybe a bit of PCT and granted patents.
It is very difficult when you are only eight years old. If you are very early in the process and nobody knows you, you have to build a name. You have to show what your technology is all about, that is a big challenge. We are what we call the tail of the lion right now, rather than the head or the body.
On the other hand, it is good being in Israel because Israel has the aura of the startup and innovation. I can say, “we are an Israeli university” and that gets in some doors and so that is helpful. The opportunities that you have when you are young and small are that you can be a lot more flexible.
We have decided on a policy that what is going to drive us is getting deals done rather than maximising the numbers and the income, the financial side. That makes things a lot easier because we are hungry to do all kinds of deals with companies. We do not get hung up on getting an extra half a percent. Our principles are more flexible on how we are going to handle IP, how are we going to handle publications, what we can do to support the company. That helps us differentiate ourselves from the more established universities which can be choosy, maybe a little more difficult to work with.
In Israel, typically universities have a bad name when it comes to doing deals with industry. They are always worried that the bureaucracy and the legal structure within the university is going to make a deal difficult. We try to break out from that. That is an opportunity we have as a young, flexible dynamic institution.
Heles: It is crystal ball-gazing here, but is that something that you hope to keep long term, that agility, flexibility, or do you think that is eventually going to go away as you become more of an established organisation?
Love: On the one hand, yes. Who is not going to say we want to be agile and flexible but beggars cannot be choosers. Looking at ourselves right now we are beggars and not choosers. I hope we get to a situation where we can have competing entities on our technologies and then we can be a little bit more choosy, so that will probably impact, but that might end up being a good thing.
Everything has got its stages in life. We are at the stage where we want quantity over quality or quantity of deals because that is what makes noise. We want that to happen.
Heles: That makes sense. As you said, Israel has got a phenomenal ecosystem, really punching above its weight as well for a country for roughly 9 million people. Does it make tech transfer easy to have an abundance of talent or is there a lot of competition going on?
Loev: I would not say there is competition. I think the fact that the whole ecosystem exists around innovation and entrepreneurial spirit only works to our advantage. There is an abundance of VCs here. There is a huge amount of multinationals. We have over 250 multinationals with research centres in Israel, and they are always looking for innovations and they recognise that they come out of universities now as well.
There is really no downside. Technology transfer is a tough sport because we are so early stage and it is very high risk, that exists no matter how you look at it. I think it is great that when we look for an entrepreneur, that is the easiest thing in the world to find. Every MBA student in Israel thinks he is Bill Gates and Steve Jobs rolled into one and my phone will ring off the hook with people saying, “give me something that you have got and I will make it into a great product”. There is no lack of entrepreneurial spirit and entrepreneurs.
I know everybody likes to knock the government, but in terms of supporting collaboration between academia and industry, there is some good programmes that, in order to tap into some funding, a company has to work with an academic institution. We are getting calls from industrial partners saying, “hey, how about if we do this programme together?” That is very helpful as well.
There is no problem of competition, too much talent out there and that we get lost in the shuffle. If we do our job correctly then the whole of that atmosphere is helpful, is waiting to help us do that.
Heles: Does that entrepreneurial spirit translate to your faculty as well? Are they also keen to get their research out there or are they still the people who sit in their labs and not really talk to you?
Loev: You made it a binary type of thing there. As typical, you will have a spectrum, but I tend to find that in general a person that decides to go and become a university professor has a particular idea in mind of what he wants to do with his life. Typically, they are not looking to make millions as university professors. They are there to publish work, to be independent, to have the prestige of a university chair. Those are the main things that drive their career.
If I had to say typically, they are less oriented to what we do and part of the challenges that we have is to get them on board, to have them support the process because it is not painless. We try to make it as less difficult as possible, but there are certain things that we have to get from the research.
They have to look over the patents that we do. We often have them on calls and meetings, talking with potential partners that takes them a bit off the focus of their research. It is not painless, so typically they are not quite as gung-ho commercial as your typical entrepreneur is.
There is a reason they are at the university and that reason is to promote their research and have students and so on. In most cases we are able to find a happy medium with them supporting what we do and of course there is a revenue sharing programme that they are happy to participate in so there is an incentive for them as well.
Heles: That makes sense. This is my favourite question. What is your favourite spinout or technology that has come out of Ariel so far?
Love: I am not going to pick our success story in terms of the startup that is making money, although that is nice too. You said “my favourite technology or spinout”. We have a centre of excellence in wine studies here.
Heles: Okay, wow, that is different.
Love: Right? One of the things they have done is genetic studies of ancient biblical wines. They have been able to re-manufacture wine that existed in biblical times, the time of Jesus and King David, because archeologically you can find the remnants of the grape seeds.
Although that is not a technology that I can typically market, we have a lot of studies around innovation in winemaking. Winemaking is one of the oldest technologies in the world. It is a hugely traditional way of doing things in oak casks. We have young researchers working in the area looking how to bring innovation into wine technologies and they have come up with several technologies that are my favourite. When you say what is my favourite, these are my favourite, these are exciting because you are taking a really old process and you are putting new high-tech into it.
One of the problems that you have with wine, for example, is the whole fermentation process which is very delicate and needs to be continually monitored, which it is not now, you have got the barrel and the guy goes once a day and takes a little sample out of a particular area and that is how he makes decisions if the pH is okay or the amount of tannins is alright. We have high-teched that up.
We have continuous monitoring sensors and you can add and change the amount of nitrogen and oxygen and do all of the control automatically. You do not want to replace the oenologist because they are very sensitive to that, but you want to give them tools that help them be better. We built a database that different wineries could use if they had a problem, “maybe I can solve that with mine”. We get a database that we can share. That is one area of high-tech.
Another area within wine that we have developed is a better way to age wine in barrels because barrels are expensive. You will use them twice or three times and each wine barrel for a quality wine costs something like €700, it is a huge expense.
We have developed a high-tech barrel where you can increase the surface area. What is so good about a barrel? It is a particular type of wood and it exudes its flavour into the wine. That is why it is very important. We have developed a high high-tech barrel with much larger surface area can reduce the amount of time that the wine needs to be in the barrel and get the same or better quality, better colour.
This is another area where you change a process that has been done for a thousand years and now we can make it something new. The hard part of course is getting that into the market because of the traditional nature of winemaking. We want to start not with France and Italy, which is the hardest market to get into, but maybe with Australia and Chile, that may be more amenable to making these new changes.
Heles: That is amazing. I like asking these questions mostly because it brings out these kinds of very weird out there technologies that most people would not have thought of. With tech transfer you think healthcare, life sciences, physics, IT. I do not think I have ever thought of winemaking as something that would benefit from research.
Loev: When I was at Tel Aviv University, we also supported a new technology for making films, and that was another one that was a lot of fun. I got my name written in the credits of a film that made absolutely no money, but it was also nice to see that my name was on a film credit.
Heles: My final question. Open-ended one, whether there is anything that we have not talked about that you want people to know about.
Loev: If you are considering a career in technology transfer, I can only recommend it. It is so much fun and you get in the bottom floor of new ideas. It can also be a springboard to a business career. I am now a director of about four or five of our startup companies, and if you want to go into business you can also use it as a springboard to get into some of these companies.
When I grow up and if I want to join one of these companies, I probably could do that. I think it is a great career and I am glad I fell into it.
Heles: I think those are wonderful closing words. Larry thank you very much for joining us today. It has been a real pleasure talking to you as always…
Loev: …and for me, and I cannot wait to see you in person.
TH: One day and hopefully not too soon. Well, hopefully not…
Loev: I got it! That was a Freudian slip there.
Heles: It was. No, I hope I get to see you soon.
Loev: All right then, it was great to talk to you.
Heles: Thank you.