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Yeda and Merck fashion industry internship program for Institute alumni


Date: October 22, 2017
Dr. Jean Wakim

Dr. Jean Wakim

In a first-of-its-kind pilot project, the Weizmann Institute of Science’s tech transfer arm, Yeda, and long-time industry partner Merck have joined together to provide selected doctoral students with an opportunity to enhance their academic skills with experience in pharmaceutical research and development, directly following completion of their degree.

Two talented, newly minted PhD graduates—Dr. Dmitry Zabezhinsky and Dr. Jean Wakim—are being given the unique opportunity to work with Merck scientists and clinicians at Merck’s Darmstadt, Germany site. The program will expose these alumni to cutting-edge pharmaceutical research and development, plus business development expertise.

The program was first conceived during a brainstorming session between Yeda leadership and Dr. Ulrich Betz, Merck Biopharma’s Vice President and Head of the Innovation Department and Entrepreneurship Incubator. Dr. Betz recalls, “We wanted to deepen the relationship between Merck and the Weizmann Institute—one of Merck’s most important and fruitful academic alliances—in order to bridge the gap from academia to industry.”

From Yeda’s point of view, says CEO Gil Granot-Mayer, this internship could be of immense benefit to Israel’s biotechnology ecosystem. “These individuals will gain important new knowledge from one of the best pioneering pharmaceutical companies in the world, in a context that doesn’t exist in Israel; their eventual return to Israel will yield needed expertise,” he says. “The program is also of benefit to the Weizmann Institute itself, as their work could foster technology transfer opportunities in drug development.”

The graduates were chosen through an application process that included interviews in Darmstadt and teleconferences with Merck staff in Boston. At Merck, they will connect with top scientists, combining their existing academic skills with a newly acquired industry perspective to develop breakthrough ideas. They will also work on research projects, and with a Merck Innovation Management coach to transform their ideas into a convincing business plan. In addition, they will have the opportunity to avail themselves of Merck’s excellent career-development training workshops on information technology and software development, among other topics.

At the end of the internship period, they will present their business plans to Merck for further long-term development. Alternatively, they may choose to take their new skills into the world of biotechnology or even return to academia more aware of the pharmaceutical pipeline process.

Dmitry Zabezhinsky, who earned his PhD in molecular genetics under the guidance of Prof. Jeffrey Gerst, is excited to begin work with Merck’s Birgit Piater and Stefan Hecht in Darmstadt. “I was looking for a way to transfer from academia into industry, and this opportunity matched what I wanted exactly,” he says. He’ll be working on compounds that can be used to target anti-cancer drugs to tumors.

Jean Wakim, who earned his PhD studying intercellular communication in cancer under the guidance of Prof. Ari Elson in the Department of Molecular Genetics, will be joining Dr. Zabezhinsky in the same lab in Darmstadt. “This is a great opportunity to be exposed to different modes of thinking and high-quality science,” he says.

A partnership in innovation and curiosity

Merck Biopharma fosters innovation through a variety of programs, including the Innovation Cup, an annual contest in which graduate students from around the world are invited to a one-week pharmaceutical R&D summer camp. With coaching from accomplished Merck researchers, they will prepare and present an innovative project plan to Merck’s research and development managers, for the chance at a 20,000€ prize. Weizmann Institute students have been highly successful in this competition over the years.

The 2018 contest will coincide with the 350th anniversary of Merck’s founding. This ‘mega’ Cup will include a wider range of fields, including life sciences, medical sciences, and high-performance materials. Dr. Betz says he hopes to see many Weizmann Institute students and alumni among the participants.

Weizmann Institute President Prof. Daniel Zajfman will be a keynote speaker at the Curious2018: Future Insight Conference, which Merck is hosting in Darmstadt in July 2018. The conference will bring together some of the world's brightest researchers and most accomplished entrepreneurs to explore the future of science and technology. All Innovation Cup participants will be entitled to attend.

Dr. Dmitry Zabezhinsky

Dr. Dmitry Zabezhinsky