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Paroled Israeli Murderer Created Health-Tech Startup Behind Bars, Now Going Public

Harel Hershtik is the brainchild behind a breakthrough product that could detect diseases with a patient's breath — an invention he says he created in hopes of redemption for the 1996 murder of his mother's former boyfriend. 

By Jax Miller
Harel Hershtik works at his lab in Israel

A man in Israel is drawing a mix of praise and backlash for creating a successful and potentially life-saving product while serving time in prison for murder.

Harel Hershtik, 46, is slated to go public with a health-tech startup business valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the Associated Press. However, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the brainchild behind the potentially life-saving technology is the man behind one of the country’s more infamous murders.

“When I was young, I would say that I was stupid and arrogant,” Hershtik said in an exclusive interview with the AP. “You can be a genius and yet still be very stupid, and the two don’t contradict each other.”

Hershtik was released in 2021 despite being sentenced to life in prison in a grisly 1996 murder, after the parole board deemed him a person with “especially high intelligence” who posed no threat to society. In 2018, while imprisoned, Hershtik had founded Scentech Medical, the company behind a product poised to detect a number of diseases by a simple test of the patient’s breath.

The tech whiz also claims to have sold six of 31 companies he created behind bars, where he also earned two doctorates in math and chemistry.

In 1996, then-20-year-old Hershtik plotted to kill a charismatic snake trapper named Yaakov Sela, who had became Hershtik’s herpetology mentor at age 14 and was a former boyfriend of Hershtik’s mother. Sela was painted as a womanizer from whom Hershtik had stolen the equivalent of $15,000. In lieu of involving the police, Sela demanded that Hershtik pay the money back with 100 percent interest, according to the Times of Israel.

Hershtik and an accomplice, however, drove Sela to several banks to collect the monies to repay his debt, according to the Associated Press. Hershtik then stopped the car, pretending he was going to be sick.

That’s when the accomplice shot the victim three times with a firearm owned by Hershtik’s mother before handing the gun to Hershtik, who fatally shot Sela in the head at close range. The pair stuffed Sela’s body in the trunk of the car before burying it in a grove in the Golan region of northeast Israel.

Sela was found weeks later after hikers found the victim’s hand sticking up from the ground.

Hershtik was convicted following the confession of the accomplice. His mother was also convicted in relationship to the case.

As part of his parole, Hershtik is required to wear an ankle monitor and is placed under house arrest every night, according to the Associated Press.

He hopes that discovering the science behind a product capable of detecting diseases such as COVID-19, cancer, and depression will be a way of redeeming himself of the sins of his past.

“The remorse I felt for what I did would become a beacon for my path forward,” said Hershtik. “This company was built because I wanted to do something better, to leave the world a better place.”

Hershtik acts as the vice president of Scentech Medical, which is awaiting approval to merge with NextGen Biomed. The latter trades on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and would make Hershtik’s company public, valuing his company at $250 million.

While the Israeli government has no laws preventing inmates from conducting such businesses, some members of the public say the $25 million Hershtik's company has so far earned from private investors — let alone the money he's earned from other companies —ought to be spent in part on some sort of restitution to the loved ones of the man he killed.

Tovia Bat-Leah, the mother of Yaakov Sela’s child, says Hershtik should provide funds for her daughter’s education or a reptile museum in Sela’s honor, according to the Associated Press.

“He served his time, but he should make some kind of reparation,” said Bat-Leah. “Whatever that looks like, I don’t know."

Bat-Leah found Sela's death particularly traumatizing, despite the fact that the two had broken up, because her brother had been a victim of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in 1991, according to the AP.

Hershtik says he will soon be applying for FDA approval for his non-invasive product, which is already making waves around the country. It is backed by big-name investors, including Yaakov Amidror, who once served as the former chief of Israel’s National Security Council. Shmuel Shapira, the former director of the Israel Institute for Biological Research, is the company’s chief technology officer, and Zeev Rotstein, the former director of one of Israel’s largest hospitals, helms the company’s scientific council.

One of Hershtik’s investors, Drew Morris, admitted to the Associated Press that he was “freaked out” by the tech whiz’s murder conviction but soon realized Hershtik aimed to “do something good for the world.”

Herhstik told the AP that he could have created a number of companies that wouldn’t have benefitted society, adding that it was not about the money.

It has yet to be seen how much of an impact Herstik’s past will have, as the company progresses toward bringing the invention to market.

According to Drew Morris, Hershtik has agreed to forfeit his position in the company should his murder conviction become a problem.

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