Harvard Kennedy School inspired Yehuda Elram MC/MPA 2016 to morph an idea into a promising startup

By Mari Megias
October 31, 2018

The egg industry has a dirty little secret: Hatcheries macerate or asphyxiate seven billion male chicks each year. This process, known euphemistically as “culling,” occurs because the industry considers “layer” male chicks to be useless since they cannot lay eggs and they do not grow large enough to be raised for their meat. Culling is performed only after chicks hatch and once a professional chicken sexer has determined whether they are male or female. 

The brutal process raises ethical concerns for some and incurs an economic cost for farmers because hatcheries need to incubate, hatch, and select all the unwanted males. But this is changing, thanks to a new technology that uses DNA to determine the chick’s sex after the egg is laid but before hatching. 

At the forefront of these efforts is Yehuda Elram MC/MPA 2016. A lawyer by training, Elram first learned about culling after a phone conversation with one of his favorite legal clients, Professor Dani Offen. Offen, who directs a neuroscience lab at the University of Tel Aviv, had watched a video of live male chicks being ground up for disposal, and as a scientist with an expertise in gene editing, he figured a technology known as CRISPR could be applied to prevent male chicks from being incubated, hatched, and then destroyed.

Yehuda Elram MC/MPA 2016 | Photo © Kassie Borreson.

A successful entrepreneur and self-described problem-solver, Elram was intrigued by a process he saw as both barbaric and wasteful. Following his conversation with Offen, Elram conducted legal research on the intellectual property issues and was fascinated to learn that there had been many unsuccessful attempts to end culling.

The idea percolated in his mind during a pivotal time in his career. It was only recently that he had decided to reimagine his professional life by attending Harvard Kennedy School. “Being in an exploration mode, and regenerating ideas and moving from your comfort zone, is something that played out for me a few times in my life,” he says. “Coming to HKS wasn’t the first time I stopped to say, ‘I don’t need to be a lawyer my whole life.” Indeed, after receiving his law degree, he got a master’s in education and taught for a few years. “Re-creating yourself and doing something you are passionate about, something that leaves a mark, is a rewarding way for me to feel like I’m moving,” he says.

His experience at the Kennedy School inspired him, providing him with the space he needed to find his passion and embrace the challenge of having a global impact with his next career. “I spent a chunk of time playing around with ideas at the Harvard iLab, and it was inspiring to be in that ecosystem of a startup mode. It became clear to me that what I needed to do next was to start a company, and that company has to have a huge impact, not just financially but on a problem worth solving.”

After graduating, he and Offen took the idea of using CRISPR technology for sex selection of chicks to the Israeli cohort of Mass Challenge, a startup accelerator with locations in Massachusetts, Israel, Mexico, Switzerland, Texas, and the United Kingdom. They won. Their company—eggXYt (pronounced “exit”)—also won a number of other prestigious awards. With venture funding and a first client, Elram and Offen are hoping to have technology to be implemented for chicken sex selection soon. 

As Elram works to bring eggXYt’s service to market, he continues to be inspired by the lessons he learned about himself at the Kennedy School. “The program at HKS is a huge part of the success of our company, both directly and indirectly,” he says. “If you have a dream and want to make it happen, you just do it.” 

He also was encouraged by his classmates’ creativity and inventiveness. “Meeting people from so many countries, cultures, different experiences, failures, successes, was a huge inspiration. The whole Harvard community was a model for how people are always in search of how to improve society, how to develop as a person, how to never stop learning, how to be humble about how much we don’t know and how much there is to learn, and how you can learn from others.”

Driven in part by his time at the Kennedy School, Elram has set his sights beyond addressing just one global issue. He says, “Gene editing is by far one of the most revolutionary technologies in the life sciences. In the words of Bill Gates, ‘Used responsibly, gene editing holds the potential to save millions of lives and empower millions of people to lift themselves out of poverty. It would be a tragedy to pass up the opportunity.’ Gene editing will solve so many problems in areas of human health and the food industry, enabling more sustainability and efficiency, and our wider vision is to solve many more problems.”