Israeli start-up fights on to preserve country’s science and technology edge

07 Nov 2023 | News

The head of a biotech start-up tells how the war has upended his company and the wider Israeli ecosystem. The normal rules of capitalism have been relaxed, with rival start-ups and venture capitalists now helping each other out

Yogev Debbi, the co-founder and chief executive of Israeli start-up

It was supposed to be a celebratory moment for, a start-up aiming to use artificial intelligence to improve the delivery of genetic medicines.

The company, which has offices in Tel Aviv and Haifa and around 20 staff, had raised $19.5 million in seed funding, and planned to make the big announcement on October 10.

Yogev Debbi, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, was due to fly to a major industry conference in California and pitch his company’s big idea: that rather than trial and error experimentation, automated design and in silico testing tools could be used to discover and optimise lipid nanoparticles as delivery vehicles for cell, gene and RNA-based therapies.

But three days before the launch, Israel was struck by a surprise barrage of missiles and raids by Hamas fighters who surged into the south of the country, killing and kidnapping hundreds of civilians.

One team member who was in the area managed to escape, Debbi told Science|Business. Another had friends who were killed in the attack. “Everyone in Israel knows someone that got affected,” he said.

The Hamas attacks, and subsequent Israeli mobilisation for war, have upended the start-up community in a country known for its R&D prowess, posing dilemmas for countless companies over whether to continue or scale back growth plans and leaving a question mark hanging over Israel’s technological future.

In the end, after making sure colleagues were safe, Debbi and his colleagues decided to press ahead with’s big launch, even though grounded flights meant he was not able to personally pitch the company in the US. 

“We have to show that part of winning the war is not only winning the war in the battlefield, which is what our brave soldiers will do,” he said. “It's also about […] keeping Israel at the forefront of science and technology.”

This might not be a motivational message that appeals to all potential hires outside Israel. But Debbi argues it’s in the wider interest to keep the country at the technological edge. “It’s good not only for Israel, but also for the world, because Israel is one of the biggest producers of patents and technology, innovations. So I think people can relate to that, regardless of the political questions.”

Team members drafted

Still, there’s no denying that the war will hit’s plans. “Yes, some projects might be delayed, but we're still committed to our internal goals,” said Debbi. The start-up hasn’t asked for a “discount” from its investors, he stressed.

The most immediate problem when the war broke out was that staff had to work from home. “There is a bit of a challenge because we have a lab,” he said. Grounded flights prevented the company exporting and importing key materials like organic chemicals, although many connections have now resumed.

But the biggest problem is that some of’s 20-strong team have been called up to serve in the Israeli military as it launches an assault on Gaza to destroy Hamas. The government has called up 360,000 reservists, emptying some scientific labs of younger researchers.

Debbi won’t say exactly how many of his team have been called up, but says it is a “significant” number.

Some team members are now doing “two jobs to compensate” and are “sleeping less,” he said. The company might outsource some of this work temporarily while the war goes on.

The company is still in touch with the team members now serving, even as the Israeli military moves into Gaza. Keeping in touch about work is almost a “break” from the war, Debbi said. “This is why I allow it”.

“Usually, let's say when people are sick, they should stay and rest and recover. So don’t talk about work,” he explained. “But I understand in this situation, they need this break and it's healthy for them to think about other stuff than what's going on [in the war]. They don’t really work, they just keep engaged, and keep the relationship.”

National solidarity

As Debbi tells it, the war has almost led to a temporary suspension of the cut and thrust of start-up competition in Israel, with former competitors helping each other in the name of national solidarity.

For example, one clinical stage biotech start-up in the north of Israel had to evacuate due to the threat from Hezbollah in Lebanon, forcing it to ask competitors for fridge space to store perishable materials.

“They got no less than a couple of dozen options – people all around the country suddenly have space in the fridge for this material,” Debbi said.

In another example, this week a consortium of venture capitalists, government agencies and other companies – called Wartime CEOs – was launched to give Israeli start-up leaders free advice, networking and other services to help them get through the upheaval of war. “People think about the country first and not as individuals,” said Debbi.

“VCs, which competed on investing in my company, now they're collaborating,” he said. “We talk every day, suddenly, for a bigger purpose. I love it.”

How long this suspension of the normal workings of capitalism lasts depends on the course of the war, Debbi said. “I’d rather the war to end, see peace in the Middle East, and then people go back to normal competing with each other.”

The war will certainly hit the Israeli start-up scene in the short and medium term. But in the longer-term, “I think we will come out better off,” said Debbi. “I think it will prove the world that Israelis overcome situations and are resilient.”  

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