Bringing New Tech to Developing Countries and Playing Pro Basketball


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    Today we welcome Mr. Assaf Barnea to the show. He is a former pro basketball player in Europe and currently the CEO of Sanara Ventures, a healthcare innovation fund backed by Phillips and Teva Pharmaceuticals investing in digital health and medical device technologies.

    Sanara invests primarily in early stage digital health and bio convergence companies. He offers his insight and outlook on bio convergence in the future.

    Assaf also shares experiences as the co-founder of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation’s Tech Emerge Initiative, which is a unique acceleration platform that connects healthcare startups from around the world with leading corporations and hospitals in emerging economies. He talks about the work done in India, Brazil, and now Africa. Truly inspiring and life-changing work. 

    In his career, Mr. Barnea co-founded CardioSense, a medtech startup company, served as CEO of Kinrot Ventures spearheading its acquisition by Hutchison Water in 2012. He spearheaded business development at Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, where he oversaw the establishment of WaTech, the Entrepreneurship & Partnership Center for Water Technologies, where he received the Cleantech Group’s Innovation Hero Award.

    A unique highlight in Assaf’s story is basketball. At New Jersey’s Seton Hall University he and his team won the Big East championship against Georgetown in 1991 playing against Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. He played professionally in Europe for years and shares some parallels between athletic prowess and entrepreneurship.

    We’re excited to have him share his perspective and advice for entrepreneurs on today’s show.

    Show Notes:

    Music by keldez



    We seek to transcribe the audio as accurately as possible. Please excuse any minor grammatical or misspellings. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:01:54] I'm really glad we got a chance to connect. I appreciate you, you taking the time. I'm sure things are crazy busy. You have a very interesting story. And I think for our listeners, a lot of our listeners  founders and executives and early stage life sciences companies or even people in companies that are really beginning to scale up and it sounds like in your, career, you've learned a ton of lessons that will be very helpful. So appreciate you taking your time where I thought we might begin is if you could maybe tell a bit of your story about, how you got to running Sanara ventures. 

    Assaf Barnea: [00:02:26] Sanara was established about seven years ago as a joint venture with Phillips and Teva pharmaceutical.

    And they actually were looking for someone to run the show who is independent, not necessarily from Teva not necessarily from Phillips. So they called me up and they actually, we co-funded Sanara. It's an early stage investment platform when we invest between a million, to $1.5M initially in seed stage companies.

    Which are based in our office, actually just 20 minutes North of Tel Aviv. At the moment we have about 17 companies in digital health, medical devices in what is called bio convergence, which I will elaborate momentarily. But basically my team, I have a team of close to 10 people. Then we have been supporting The startups, both injecting capital and becoming a shareholders and board members in those companies, but as well as providing them with the business services, technical support, value added services.

    So this is a combination of kind of a, of an incubator VC, which we run. We're now in the process of actually setting up a followup fund, which is called Sonora capita, which is a hundred million dollar fund to do the post incubation investment, which is basically eight rounds of five to $10 million typically.

    And this is where our center will become more of a a platform that can address even the later stage companies a and B as well. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:03:44] So you, mentioned co-working That sounds it sounds like way you described this, like an incubator. Is that how you described the early point and 

    Assaf Barnea: [00:03:52] It's a VC incubator. And we also have a franchise from the Israel innovation authority, the government. So this is, part of the incubator component whereby the company is under this idea, which is quite a known program out of Israel for the last 30 years. Those VC incubators, that the companies resides in the same place.

    There's the knowledge sharing component, which is related to that. Definitely working with my team about who to talk to, what would be the milestones for every stage of the development. So it could be supporting companies on the digital health side and telemedicine on one side or on the other one, immunotherapy for cancer and as such we have also built a, quite an impressive, I would say an advisory board, the global advisory board that supports those companies through my teams and those expertise may come from All the way from Scripps in San Diego to Mayo clinic, to Henry Ford and other hospitals which were worked closely with, in Europe, in Asia.

    So this is, part of the support, the second layer of support. Yeah. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:04:53] And tell me about bio convergence. I know it sounds like something that's important to you and it's something that we care a lot about. Maybe you can tell me How you described that? 

    Assaf Barnea: [00:05:03] Sure, sure. Honestly when, the government of Israel, the innovation authority came up with a word power convergence about a year, and a half ago, everybody raised their heads and said, what the hell?

    Sorry for saying, what the hell is it? But honestly this is, actually the convergence of biology into something else. This is a biology being engineered. If you will, to with software or combined. Or control it with software or convention with material science on converging biology and physics on biology and chemistry.

    Now we know that biology is a more complicated area than the others. And as such, we see that in these early government as well as the, ability to come up with truly disruptive technologies within in-depth. Science that was developed for, or has gone under research in the Academy for six, seven, eight years.

    For instance, we have Sonata happened to be that we have five companies, which are bio convergence happened to be that now there'll be defined as background versus companies because now it became like a known and known the phrase or frameworks to work under. But before. We even knew about this term of bar convergence.

    We invested in them because of the depth of technology. So it could be a company like we have a company called nano apps, which are drops in your eyes that replacing lenses and glasses, it could be immunotherapy for cancer. It could be a brain aneurism that involves physics and biology altogether.

    And it could be software integrated into computational biology. So this is, in simple words by our convergence. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:06:39] It's a really great term because everybody in the space right now, I believe is signing on to the concept that while software is being eating the world over the past couple of decades, bio is now, then the new frontier.

    And I think that it was Andreessen Horowitz said when they launched their third bio fund early last year that bio is not the next new thing. Bio is becoming everything. I believe that that is going to be as true in hindsight as the software eating the world statement. So I'm really excited about everybody seeing this and the applications are just tremendous.

    Assaf Barnea: [00:07:14] It is, You've been using the words, frontier. It is exactly that being able to cross the frontier of biology by using other disciplines. And this is exactly where we can hopefully overcome some of those very, very deep challenges within the biology space that we've been seeing the last decades through technology through software.

    Let it be, as I said before, computational biology or printing of organs, or delivering drugs to the brain and crossing the BBB, the blood-brain barrier. So these are exactly the complexities that bio convergency is trying to address. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:07:48] Yeah. What are you most excited about in that space right now?

    Assaf Barnea: [00:07:52] It's a, I think as, a, as an investor, as a VC, basically we see a potential of exits, which potentially might be even bigger than digital health. To some extent digital health could be if you take some benchmarks of digital health it depends really, but bio convergence, if there's a depth of technology, we see.

    As, big potential in some, cases, even bigger potential for bigger exits, as corporates, buying those technologies, let it be in the narrow kind of brain or let it be in the other cardiovascular. We see a huge potential for that. As long as the companies may get to a of proof of concept and may not necessarily be the with the needs to go through the long buying cycles really getting into the marketplace, but rather really being able to provide something to the corporates who potentially will buy them in an earlier stage. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:08:46] I think that's pretty clear with companies like a Gingko Bioworks. Now, when you see the evaluations they're putting out, I think they're one of the first of the new wave of companies in this space, at least as we see it. So your at Sanara ventures, you have that major part of your work. You're also you cofounded the IFCs tech emerge initiative. Maybe you could tell me a bit more about that and maybe if there's any overlap.

    Assaf Barnea: [00:09:12] There's overlap actually in the, sense of bringing innovation to places where it may be stated as we welcome innovation, but the heart component of that is, is you need to build a mechanism to bring innovation into corporates, into government, into countries. So the tech emerge actually we let a few folks from the IFC, from the venture capital team of the IFC, the international finance corporation and mostly a colleague and a friend of mine named  and myself flew all the way down to India initially, and actually set the concept of validating a new medical technology is, which are needed.

    Let it be cervical cancer in India, which is the number one cause of death for women in India, probably the largest worldwide. Because women simply do not come back for the paps and the test because of the distance and others. So actually we started that tacky marriage in India with hospitals those that had been working with, the world bank, such as a Apollo Fortysmax, and the world bank is supporting them.

    And we call upon initially like 400 companies globally. Those who have finished out a day and are ready to start commercialization. So we call 400 companies from Spain, from Norway, from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the U S for sure. Israel. And basically we screened, we use a team, various teams to as judge judges that were screening those technologies.

    And basically we brought 40 of those companies to be admitted to this program in India initially. And if I'm not mistaken where we started, we had 25 pilots of validation for those companies, which the Indian hospitals did not know that there are solutions out there. But they needed to go through the technology transfer or to this open platform, which we built to be validated in India.

    And I think if I'm not mistaken about 15 companies were able to get into commercial agreements with those hospitals in India. Then we took it down to Brazil, to São Paulo with 25 hospitals in San Paolo. And actually this last year we brought it also to Africa. So this is, truly something that I'm personally very proud of.

    With the colleagues from the IFC, we were able to build something which is not just to provide the check a large investment ticket of whatever, 15, 20 million data as, a VC, but rather really putting your hands into the early stage component of validation, going through the process, defining the crate, the success criteria of those pilots.

    And then, setting up the ground for commercialization. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:11:43] Congratulations on that. That's success. That's really impressive. Thank you. Thank you. So with all that experience, what advice would you give to any entrepreneurs, founders, or people looking to get into this space and make a difference? 

    Assaf Barnea: [00:11:58] One yesterday I had the pleasure to interview the CEO of Phillips for the Medicinal conference, which we host by the the Israeli expert Institute and the ministry of economy.

    And I'm also the chairman of the life science board in the Israeli export Institute. And I had the pleasure to interview fond spun out, and who's the CEO of royal Phillips. And they're one of the, one of the things that I've asked him is about the new partnership that they actually built with Disney and taking the content of the animations that we all love and see when kids are going through an MRI examinations and they have a lot of anxiety and fear.

    This is basically now using those animations in the MMI with the Phillips technology to reduce the anxiety and fear. So actually one of the quotes there that I saw as a preparation for that interview was a quote from Disney. The difference between a success and a failure is not giving up.

    So that would be my first tip and advice to entrepreneurs. Do not give up, even though you're going through the ups and the downs. If you truly believe don't give up, don't give up for looking for capital. Don't give up on the right partner. Don't give up. So this is one thing, but there's a big but on the other side. Be able to listen. A lot of entrepreneurs that I meet. They're just in a very, a selling mode. They just trying to sell and convince and convince This might be a point at a lot of entrepreneurs because of their personality or because of the motivations they don't necessarily listen enough to the feedbacks for anything, which is related to product market fit, anything that related potentially to pricing, to regulation, to reimbursement. And to that extent, I would say both don't give up on one side, but be able to truly listen and integrate those feedbacks to your product development 

    Robert Fenton: [00:13:44] Wise words. I wish more people had that from, the beginning, if it's good feedback.

    And I think people often learn that lesson. 

    Assaf Barnea: [00:13:52] It's a mindset, it's a mindset, it's a mindset. And people don't acknowledge that. Sometimes when I have a. A chance to speak one-on-one with those entrepreneurs and I tell them don't, try to sell so much. Please listen. When you meet delegation CEO's or when you meet investors, do listen to them.

    It is very, important to listen carefully to the feedbacks and, make sure that you bring it to your product development, to the whole map of the company. Yeah. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:14:17] I know we're coming near the end of our time here, Assaf off slight at change of speed here. I was reading more about your background.

    It sounds like you were pretty accomplished as a basketball player in, your day in university. One last question for you. Do you, still follow college basketball? 

    Assaf Barnea: [00:14:33] Every now and then I did I had a great career and I've been playing as a professional. For 14 years. I had a very good year at Seton hall where PJ Colistin was my coach.

    And the a, we won the biggest championship. We beat a Georgetown with Alonzo mourning and Dikembe Mutombo in the Madison square garden. I have a championship ring. And then after that, they came up. I came back to Israel and I was playing as a professional in Israel and in Europe for 13, 14 years.

    So this is a one side. This is definitely something that I, embraced the career, the motivations, the challenges the, way to handle that and bring it also to entrepreneurship is on one side. But honestly only when it gets to the NBA finals or only to that stage, I simply don't have much time now.

    And I indulged myself. Only in very special moments not, necessarily following up all the the routine, the leagues games in Europe or in Israel or in the NBA, unfortunately. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:15:22] Yeah it's, quite a story. I'm sure there are lots of the lessons learned in elite sports, performance and business performance and spawning nurturing talent.

    And I, to your point about listening. I have found that the greatest performers there are all those beginners, in any field, and you're always learning. That's probably the superpower I've noticed across the most accomplished people. I had the pleasure to meet. Yeah, 

    Assaf Barnea: [00:15:44] I agree. And it's a T it's a teamwork. This is the only one there. Actually there's only one poster. We have a very big office in Sanara and the only one which indicates my previous background is a quotation that I took from Michael Jordan that basically it's an old quotation, I believe, but there's a big picture in, the Sanara office whereby talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships.

    And this is something that a teamwork wins championships, even though you can be very talented. You may win. You wouldn't be winning some games here and there, but if you want to win the championship, you have to go into a true teamwork. And this is, the one quote that I took for my previous basketball coordinator.

    And I put it on a big, poster and a picture of the, in the Sanara office for those entrepreneurs to make sure that they understand working with us as investors, but I can within themselves as a team of a group of entrepreneurs as well. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:16:31] I love that I may steal that quote from you. I guess it's not second hand is third hand right now, but thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us today.

    I wish we had longer. We might bring you back in the future to learn a bit more about that journey from sports to business and just the amazing career that you've had. But for today, thank you very much for sharing. And I'm excited to get this out there for other people who are either wanting to follow in your footsteps or.

    Learn more of a bio convergence and this huge shift that's happening in this industry.And digital 

    Assaf Barnea: [00:17:00] health. Did you tell us, of course not spoken much, but this is actually main verticals bio convergence second Medica medical field that we are investing in. So both digital health and bio convergence. So all of the the pillars for, the Sanara investment thesis basically. 

    Robert Fenton: [00:17:17] Thank you so much. 

    Assaf Barnea: [00:17:18] Pleasure, Thank you much guys. Thank you. Take care. 


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