Israeli cutting-edge medical startups wow Pittsburgh business, medical communities

Israeli cutting-edge medical startups wow Pittsburgh business, medical communities

Army veteran Terry Hannigan, a paraplegic, says the exoskeleton from ReWalk “has given me back my independence and my life.” (Photo by Simone Shapiro)
Army veteran Terry Hannigan, a paraplegic, says the exoskeleton from ReWalk “has given me back my independence and my life.” (Photo by Simone Shapiro)

What Jewish teen hasn’t said to himself or herself, “I want to find a cure for cancer,” or, “I want to invent something that will help people,” or simply, “I want to make the world a better place.” The Israeli men and women who presented last week at the Global Venturing Israel: MedTech & Inclusive Innovation Conference didn’t just dream, they acted on that dream — and brought to Pittsburgh the fruits of their actions.

Global Venturing Israel brought together medical industry companies developing innovative technologies, Pittsburgh business and community leaders, venture capitalists, leaders of the African- American community, professors and students. Alex Spoont, a finance major at the University of Pittsburgh, was one of the students who attended the March 26-27 conference at the university’s Katz School of Business. What stood out among the cutting-edge, life-saving and life-changing inventions, he said, was an exoskeleton from ReWalk Robotics.

The Nasdaq-listed Israeli firm invented and manufactures the FDA-approved device for paraplegics, giving them the ability to stand and walk. After a short presentation, the company’s senior product manager introduced Ret. Sgt. Terry Hannigan, an Army veteran and paraplegic who stood up and told her story. Hannigan has a progressive blood disease resulting from her military service that paralyzes her from mid-chest down.

She described her life prior to getting the ReWalk device.

“I couldn’t hold myself up on the edge of the bed,” she said. “The only physical contact I had with other people was when I was lifted out of my bed onto the wheelchair. I saw my life as progressively losing more and more ability to function. I was depressed and suicidal. I had no hope.”

Then she started walking around the room.

“It was mind-blowing,” Spoont said. “The fact that she is able to stand up and walk like that — it is a miracle. It is one thing to hear about something like this. It is another to see it in real life. It is so moving.”

Hannigan said the exoskeleton has transformed her life.

“I’m on such a high on this device,” she said. “It has given me back my independence and my life.”

The exoskeleton was invented by Dr. Amit Goffer, a quadriplegic who when told what his options for mobility were refused to give in. He still cannot use his own invention — he doesn’t have the use of his upper body — but he’s now working on a device for quadriplegics like himself.

Another presentation that stood out for Spoont was the Startup Showcase that featured four companies in different life-sciences sectors from the portfolio of Trendlines, an Israeli-led medical and agricultural incubator. The inventions showcased included an accurate epidural needle useful for childbirth or back pain; a surgical device that replaces the metal staples currently used for closing large wounds; a lens to be used after cataract surgery that enables a person to see at any distance; and a predictive blood test for Alzheimer’s disease. Each company was, according to Spoont, “doing something impressive, and they all seemed to care most about the well-being of people, not just profits.”

Paul Harper, professor of Pitt’s Katz School of Business, and Gregg Roman, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, developed the conference as a way to enhance business ties between the Steel City and the Jewish state.

Eric M. White, business development executive at the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, saw the conference as an opportunity to showcase the city to Israeli startups and to let people know that “Pittsburgh is open for business.”

For his part, Yaron Sideman, Israel’s consul general to the region, stressed a natural synergy between Israel — a known life-sciences incubator — and the medical hub that is Pittsburgh. The conference is “creating business and investment opportunities to the benefit of both, creating success stories,” he said.

Ten companies and the chairmen of two venture capital firms came from Israel for the conference.

“What can be more entrepreneurial than being a new [immigrant]?” D. Todd Dollinger, the chairman and CEO of venture capital incubator Trendlines who moved to Israel 25 years ago, offered by way of explaining Israel’s startup friendly environment. “We create and develop companies to improve the human condition.”

S. Morry Blumenfeld, chairman of Our Crowd’s medical advisory board, came to Israel in 1998 as Managing Director of GE Medical, and has lived there ever since. He also emphasized the human aspect of his work. He described how, years earlier, he was involved in the development of the CT scanner. He received a letter saying, “Your scanner saved my son’s life.” He took that letter and posted it in the manufacturing bay, where mechanics were working. He wanted them to know that they were building something that actually benefited people’s health; they weren’t working on refrigerators.

At a fireside chat, Dollinger and Blumenfeld discussed what it is about Israel that created such a culture of innovation. They pointed out the maturity that youth gained from compulsory military service, the premium placed on thinking independently and the penchant for Hebrew speakers to use nicknames. Those traits, when coupled to the historical Jewish value of respect for education and the Talmudic tradition of argument, gave birth to a can-do attitude and enterprising spirit, they said.

The sole Israeli-Arab entrepreneur at the conference was also the only woman presenting: Rheem Younis, co-founder of Alpha Omega Engineering. Younis told how she and her husband, Imad, started their own company in Nazareth, their hometown, because an Israeli engineering firm wouldn’t hire him, even though he had a degree from the Technion. Their goal was to start the first high-tech company in Nazareth and to employ Arab engineers whose identities precluded work for Israeli companies.

Alpha Omega has been in business 25 years. With offices in Nazareth, Germany and Georgia, in the United States, it produces state-of-the-art instruments in neurology and neurosurgery. Their FDA-approved tools are used for Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) procedures in particular.  

Younis and her husband are also on a mission: They have a foundation called 3E: Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship that encourages Arab youths to go into technology. They have partnered with a technology accelerator for Israeli Arabs, because “we want more Arabs to do innovative technology,” she said.

Summing up the conference, Dollinger quoted Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

“If you will it, it is no dream,” he said, adding “the modern State of Israel is certainly an example of that. And that really marks the purpose of this event — to talk about dreams and how we can achieve them.”

Simone Shapiro can be reached at