Profile: Avi Kremer

Man with ALS co-founds a nonprofit to reward successful research

by Scott P. Edwards

August 13, 2007

By any measure, Avichai “Avi” Kremer is a success: He is the co-founder and chief executive officer of a successful nonprofit research organization and a biotech entrepreneur. He is a former captain in the Israel Defense Forces and has a master’s in business administration from Harvard University.

He is also in a race against time. Kremer suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive, eventually fatal neurodegenerative disorder.

ALS affects nerve cells, called motor neurons, in the brain and spinal cord. When motor neurons die, the brain loses its ability to initiate and control muscle movement, eventually leading to near-total paralysis. Most people with ALS die of respiratory failure when the muscles required for breathing can longer do their job.

Kremer had just been admitted to Harvard Business School in 2004 when, at age 29, he was diagnosed with ALS. “I was a project manager at a defense and aerospace company in Israel,” said Kremer, who responded to questions via e-mail because he has difficulty speaking. “I had a loving girlfriend whom I planned to marry, and I was just admitted to one of the top business schools. Naturally, I was on top of the world.”

That world—and Kremer’s approach to living in it—changed with his diagnosis. Rather than focus his energy on his own disease, Kremer decided to wage war on ALS by increasing awareness about the disease and raising millions of dollars to fund ALS research in Israel and the United States.

“When the doctor tells you that you have three years on average to live, you need to decide what would give the most meaning to the rest of your life,” Kremer said. “To me, it was trying to make a difference in the world and fight back. Fighting back energizes me, stimulates my mind, enables me to interact with fascinating people, and forces me to stay active and not decay in self-pity. So, in a way, I’m managing my disease in the best way possible.”

Soon after he was diagnosed, Kremer, along with other students at Harvard Business School, raised more than $550,000 from the school’s community to fund ALS research. A year later, he took a leave of absence from Harvard to work as chief executive officer of IsrALS, the Israeli ALS Association, and helped to raise more than $2 million for numerous research projects in Israel.

Kremer returned to Harvard in January 2006 to complete his MBA. Before graduating, he and fellow student Nate Boaz founded Prize4Life, described on the company’s Web site as a “results-oriented nonprofit founded to accelerate” research on ALS and motor neuron disease, a closely related illness.

Prize4Life is different from most standard granting organizations in that it does not award grant money to fund research studies. Rather, it awards prize money once a researcher has achieved a specific goal: identification of a biomarker, diagnostic tool, therapeutic agent or disease model. Inspired by the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit institute that fosters innovative competitions to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity, Prize4Life is one of the first organizations to attempt to translate this model to the biomedical field.

“The mission of the organization is to serve as a catalyst to finding a cure for ALS,” said Kremer, who is the organization’s CEO. “My vision is to close Prize4Life as soon as possible, because that will mean ALS is eradicated.”

In May, Prize4Life awarded its first $15,000 prizes to three U.S. and two foreign researchers for “best ideas” in ALS research. The organization recently launched a two-year, $1 million challenge for the discovery of a biomarker for measuring ALS disease progression.

Last month the ALS Association, the nation’s largest privately funded organization dedicated to finding a cure for ALS, recognized Kremer’s contributions to the ALS community by awarding him its highest honor, the Lawrence A. Rand Prize. In a press release announcing the award, the ALS Association said Kremer has “accomplished as much in three years as an advocate as many do in a lifetime.”

The real award to him, he says, is that different ALS organizations are taking complementary approaches and working together to help patients.

Kremer, who is confined to a wheelchair and communicates primarily via computer, shows no signs of slowing down. As a businessman, he considers the lack of an ALS cure to be a “ ‘market failure’ that humanity failed to address for over a century,” and he is “fascinated by working to solve it.”

“It is difficult to think about the mortality of a close friend,” said Boaz, Prize4Life’s co-founder, but he acknowledges that his and Kremer’s work will help many who suffer from ALS.

“There’s a saying in combat that ‘you don’t fight to win the war; you fight to save the guy next to you,’ ” Boaz said. “Avi is the guy next to me.”

Kremer knows the inevitability of ALS, but he doesn’t think of his work in terms of a legacy.

“I live my life day-to-day and try to live each day to the fullest,” Kremer said. “If I am able to find a cure, my legacy will be my kids and grandkids.”