As a student in Harvard
Mario Capecchi already as a student at Harvard had a reputation for brilliance and productivity. Despite strong endorsement to do his major work at Harvard, he decided that the Harvard environment demanded results in too much of a hurry. He wanted to do great work, to “change the world”. To do that, he thought, “you had to give yourself space to breathe”. Harvard for him represented predictable steps along well-signposted pathways - "a bastion of short-term gratification". He choose, instead of Harvard, the University of Utah, where a brand-new department was being set up. "He had spotted, in Utah, a Galapagan island on which to develop his ideas”.
applying for a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health
In 1980, Mario Capecchi applied for a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The NIH decided that Capecchi's plans sounded like science fiction. They downgraded his application and strongly advised him to drop the speculative third project. However, they did agree to fund his application on the basis of the other two solid, results-oriented projects. Capecchi took the NIH's money, and, ignoring their admonitions, he poured almost all of it into his risky gene-targeting project. It was a big gamble. If he hadn't been able to show strong enough initial results in the three-to-five-year time scale demanded by the NIH, they would have cut off his funding. Without their seal of approval, he might have found it hard to get funding from elsewhere. His career would have been severely set back, his research assistants looking for other work. His laboratory might not have survived.
Awarded the Nobel Prize
In 2007, Mario Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for this work on mouse genes. As the NIH's expert panel had earlier admitted, when agreeing to renew his funding: "We are glad you didn't follow our advice." (Capecchi's autobiographical essay is on the Nobel Prize website.)
The Funding System
According to the article about Capecchi - The NIH's expert-led, results-based, rational evaluation of projects is a sensible way to produce a steady stream of high-quality, can't-go-wrong scientific research. But it is exactly the wrong way to fund lottery-ticket projects that offer a small probability of a revolutionary breakthrough. It is a funding system designed to avoid risks — one that puts more emphasis on forestalling failure than achieving success. Such an attitude to funding is understandable in any organization.
Applying the principles of Capecchi
AEBi – without knowing it at the time - applied the principles of the Capecchi approach, but with private money, funding a fundamental research\platfrom with a breakthrough potential.
Having been rejected by the Israeli Office of the Chief Scientist a few times for follow-up programs for various reasons, AEBi turned to the Israeli private venture market.
In a rare combination of circumstances, a group of Israeli and international investors (with strong connections to Israel) were willing to fund AEBi's dream of a breakthrough platform.
AEBi faced many challanges during the years: financial, management, science-based, PR-based.
Some of the obstacles we faced are shared by other startups: a struggle for funding, investors' impatience, etc.
AEBi's Unique Challanges
AEBi experienced additional challanges unique to its field. When discussing our platform with Big Pharma\Venture Funds, we heard:
1. "We already have a Phage Display platform. Prove to us that yours is functional and we'll talk".
2. Similarly to what Clayton Christensen had described, on contact with mid-level Pharma management, we were asked to manipulate the platform so that it could fit with current research objectives of Big Pharma as dictated by senior management.
3. Since it took a long time to develop the platform, most of the people that followed our efforts since the company's inception, changed either companies or positions in companies.
4. AEBi followed a strict policy of 'no premature PR' and 'no investors who are looking for a quick fix'. While others were getting positive feedback and PR headlines, our investor-base, year after year, during the holidays and special occasions, had to explain to their families that the company is getting there slowly but surely. We completely adopted the Richard Feynman approach: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
5. Recent comments: What took you so long and what have you done all this time?
Black Swans Concept
The term is based on an ancient saying, which presumed black swans did not exist, but the saying was rewritten after black swans were discovered in Australia. (The poet Juvenal's: "crara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno" ("a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan").
"Black swan events were discussed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2001 book, titled 'Fooled By Randomness', which concerned financial events. His 2007 book, tilted 'The Black Swan', extended the metaphor to events outside of financial markets. Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as "black swans" — undirected and unpredicted.
In our eyes, the AEBi Platform represents such a 'Black Swan' event. A novel idea of inventing specific functional small peptides that did not live to its full potential due to technical problems and was being abandoned by the mainstream science. Nevertheless, we persevered in our efforts and in the founded belief that the idea of specific and direct peptides has vast applicability coupled with manufacturing and costs advantages.