January 20, 2022

From Conquering the Business World To Eradicating Diabetes

Serial entrepreneur Avner Schneur ’82 already had several businesses under his belt, including a successful software analytics company started with his wife, Rina Schneur ’86, when they turned their enterprising mindset toward medical research. They set an ambitious goal: a cure for type 2 diabetes, a disorder that is difficult to treat effectively in the long term and affects so many. “We wanted to have a significant impact on humanity,” said Avner.

While most philanthropists invest in ongoing research, the Schneurs adopted an entrepreneurial approach. They searched for a scientist who shared their dream of eliminating the disease rather than simply managing it. That person was Technion Professor Shulamit Levenberg, a renowned expert in tissue engineering. In 2014, the Rina and Avner Schneur Center for Diabetes Research was established with the goal of engineering new technologies from scratch to battle diabetes.

 

“It was just an idea, a premise,” said Rina. “We put money into research that didn’t exist.” The financial risks were huge.

Avner added, “In my business, I invest in what I know extremely well. Here we went into an area we didn’t understand well because we wanted to have an impact. Everybody told us we were crazy.”

Today, however, Prof. Levenberg and her team have successfully demonstrated their work in preclinical trials, and a U.S. patent application is under evaluation. The next step is to implement the technology in clinical trials.

The Schneurs met at the Technion doing Israeli folk dancing. Avner studied industrial engineering, Rina civil engineering and applied mathematics. Both moved to Boston in 1986: Avner to manage operations for Elscint, one of Israel’s top medical imaging companies, while Rina entered a Ph.D. program at MIT in operations research and civil engineering.

In 1990, they married and lived briefly in Westchester, New York. As chief technology officer of Astea International, Avner helped lead the software company to an IPO — the first of many successful exits in his career. Rina conducted postdoctoral research at IBM’s Watson Research Center and later joined PTCG/Sabre Technologies, leading advanced analytics teams. In 1996, Avner co-founded the first electronic medical record software for physicians using wireless pen-based technology.

Then it was time to start something of their own. In late 1999, Avner and Rina launched Emptoris, a contract management software startup that transformed the way companies procure goods and services by utilizing mathematical optimization technology. Their enterprise did so well, it was included on the 2011 Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies.

Avner led Emptoris’ impressive growth, which ended with IBM acquiring the company. In late 2011 Avner joined the document management company GRM as president and CEO. Under his leadership, GRM has expanded its digital offerings and extended operations internationally. Avner is also founder and CEO of Kormeli LLC, an investment group named after daughters Koreen and Carmel, which invests in early-stage tech companies. Kormeli has stakes in 35 companies, including two in Israel.

Rina joined Verizon in 2004 and served as the director of business analytics until 2017. In 2011, she was also named president of INFORMS, the world’s largest operations research and analytics professional association.

Today, Rina is dedicating her time and energy to philanthropic civic and political causes. “The Technion taught me how to study, how to learn, how to put theories into practice. And that was a large part of my career,” she said.

Through the years, Rina and Avner have both made time for their alma mater. Avner is a former chair of ATS – Boston’s alumni program. Together, they have hosted ATS events and have contributed generously to fundraising campaigns. But they have always wanted to do even more. “It’s nice to have your name on a building but it doesn’t help humanity,” Avner said.

“Our goal was to help humanity, focusing on finding a cure for diabetes. We met with researchers at prominent institutes, but everybody wanted our donation to fund an existing project.” So when Rina happened upon a Technion newsletter mentioning Prof. Levenberg’s interest in diabetes, the couple asked former President Peretz Lavie to arrange a Skype meeting with the professor. Three months passed without a word. Then Prof. Levenberg, the Stanley and Sylvia Shirvan Chair in Cancer and Life Sciences, came back with a plan. “She tailored this whole effort to the research areas we wanted,” said Rina. “That’s how it started.”

In healthy people, the pancreas produces the hormone insulin to help cells convert glucose, or simple sugars, into energy. But in diabetics, the body either does not produce enough insulin or cells are insulin-resistant, leading to an accumulation of glucose in the blood. Complications from diabetes can lead to heart disease and stroke, kidney problems, eye damage, and other conditions. Prof. Levenberg, in collaboration with the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine, aims to overcome insulin resistance by engineering patients’ muscle cell tissue to become sugar-hungry, thus capable of absorbing high levels of glucose.

The team has shown in preclinical trials that the engineered constructs, when implanted into patients, would help restore blood glucose levels to normal, providing a novel type of prevention, or even a potential cure for diabetes.

“Almost every fifth family in the U.S. has one diabetic member. This is a project with a major health impact, and it has now been validated,” said Avner. “Shulamit is extremely modest. She said it is going well; we can’t have better satisfaction than that.”


You Can Make a Difference

This groundbreaking research has been funded by the Schneurs since its inception in 2014. They’ve committed to another round of funding, and would like for you to join them in support of this incredible journey from benchside to bedside. “We need to reach patients quickly with this innovative solution to a pressing health problem that plagues so many,” said Avner.

Make a gift today in support of this life-saving diabetes research. Your tax-deductible contribution will be matched dollar for dollar by the Rina and Avner Schneur Charitable Giving Fund, up to $500,000. Give online by visiting ats.org/diabetes, or contact us at 212.407.6300 or gifts@ats.org to make your donation. Visit ats.org/schneur to learn more about the Rina and Avner Schneur Center for Diabetes Research.