John McArthur, then Dean of Harvard Business School and my mentor, called me with a request. He wanted me to help a student start a biotech company. This was not optional, and it was no average student. Avichai Kremer, an extraordinary Israeli MBA candidate, had been diagnosed with ALS at age 29. After taking 24 hours to accept that he was going to die supposedly in three to five years, he decided instead to change the world. John was Chairman of the Brigham and Womens Hospital and had dreamed up and created Partners Healthcare. I was a biotech executive. This was important. We had little time.
Avi would indeed change the world.
We met at the Dean’s house at Harvard Business School. John invited me to bring my older daughter Ariella, who dressed for a state occasion. Avi was brilliant and charming, but already emaciated by the disease. He was accompanied to the meeting by a female classmate who both helped and made goo goo eyes at him. He was under the care of Dr. Robert Brown of the Massachusetts General Hospital. The disease was relatively rare and had few resources. Avi and Bob wanted to start a company to cure ALS. They needed someone to license technology. I said Yes.
The meeting included Avi’s parents who had flown over from Israel. His mother cried. I wanted to. John made sure that Ariella was treated as a princess. She was offered her choice of ice creams from a silver platter. After she took a Haagen Daz bar, John, twinkle in his eye, roared at the staffperson to give her a second one because of course she didn’t want just one. Another appeared on the silver platter. We discussed the technology, which was a long shot. The only strategy was speed.
We incorporated the company and named it AviTx. About two months later I, biotech CEO Elkan Gamzu and Frances Tonneguzzo, who headed licensing at MGH, completed a license for Bob Brown’s ALS technology. It may have been the fastest license ever completed. Frances pulled out all the stops and simplified what is usually a fraught process. There was little hope it would help Avi but he didn’t care.
The signing became a victory war declaration. We felt we were driving a stake in the ground against this venal and vicious disease that decimates vital people, kills them in an agonizing way, and eats the souls of those who love them. To know Avi is to love him, and all of us were doing this for him, with his sharp blue eyes and sharper wit.
Avi took the world by storm. His HBS professors and classmates rallied and formed the Prize4Life to combat ALS. They awarded $1 million dollars to Dr. Seward Rutkove who developed a method to measure electrical impulses in muscle tissue and thereby measure disease progression. Prize4Life continues the war, and resources are now funneling against ALS. Avi has led efforts which have raised $10 million dollars.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu awarded Avi the Prime Minister’s Prize for Initiative and Innovation. Netanyahu declared a goal of doubling the funding for ALS and pledged himself to personally help Avi. And Avi beat the statistics. He is still changing the world.