Improving research links with industry in Latin America
Latin America's larger countries have been successful in science for many years, but can scientific research fuel their natural resource-dependent economies?
FIFTEEN YEARS ago, Chile learned a valuable lesson from Costa Rica when US computer chip manufacturer Intel decided to build a US$300-million semiconductor plant there. Although the plan was initially compared to putting a whale in a swimming pool, owing to Intel's annual revenue approaching twice Costa Rica's gross domestic product (GDP), the tiny Central American country seized the opportunity. Costa Rica's then president, José Figueres Ferrer, attended Intel's progress meetings and secured investment from other foreign funders off the back of the plant. More recently, the country's weathering of the economic storms that have hit Latin America has been attributed to ‘the Intel effect’, and Intel products represent 20% of Costa Rica's exports.
From Costa Rica, Chile learned what changes were needed for it to secure such a major industry investment — Intel had initially considered locating the semiconductor plant in Chile, but had trouble meeting government officials and negotiating the country's red tape. It is a lesson that Manuel Gidekel, executive director of Chilean business accelerator VentureL@b, and Juan Pablo Toledo, a UK-trained technology transfer expert, are determined to see put to good use. With VentureL@b, they aim to foster spin-off companies that will help shif Chile's economy away from its reliance on finite natural resources such as copper, and towards exporting ideas — patented, of course, and developed into high-tech goods and services. “We want to move the GDP [of Chile],” says Gidekel. “We can produce a richer country.”
Chile is facing challenges that are common to other Latin American countries. As highlighted in the 2010 UNESCO Science Report, research in the region is heavily concentrated in academia, with historically weak links to industry. While the basic infrastructure for an entrepreneurial ecosystem exists in Chile — there are high-quality research universities, some venture capitalists and several prestigious collaborations with universities abroad — there are also impediments to new and risky research-based enterprises. The venture capital community, for example, has little experience in investing in high-tech start-ups. “Roughly 80% of the wealth in Chile resides within 15 families,” explains Toledo. “That contributes towards whether you can establish a culture where people look to change their wealth through [innovation] rather than by inheriting money.”
With the lesson of Intel lodged firmly in influential minds, there is an appetite for change. The UNESCO report points out that reforms in the region have focused on promoting innovation and strengthening the bonds between research centres and business. This year the Chilean government passed a law that grants tax breaks to companies that invest in research and development (R&D). And when VentureL@b was launched in 2008, the country's president at the time, Michelle Bachelet, attended the inauguration.
The VentureL@b laboratory is based in Santiago at Chile's oldest business school — part of Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez — so it can benefit from the school's long-established relationships with local companies. PhD students associated with VentureL@b and other partners of Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez are able to develop industry-relevant skills at the business school, which was recently ranked first in Latin America by América Economía. Explaining all this in a café in central London on a visit to the United Kingdom, Gidekel appears visibly excited by the research he oversees. “This Antarctic plant might yield new sunscreens,” he says, pointing to photographs displayed on his laptop. “And these bacteria have the capacity to make phosphorus soluble in soil, even at very low temperatures.” Forging links with international innovation hubs is a key priority for Gidekel and his colleagues. “We look at Cambridge and Oxford as places where innovation flows very well,” says Ramón Molina, executive director of Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez's business school.
Brazil, Latin America's richest country, has made the most progress in improving links between public and non-profit research and industry in the region, aided to a large extent by its impressive economic growth over the past decade. Juliana Salles, the regional director for Microsoft Research in Latin America, says Brazil is on its way to achieving a critical mass of researchers, policy-makers and business owners — essential for getting innovative projects up and running in the region. There are a number of technology transfer tips that the country can offer its neighbours in Latin America, such as allowing academics to work as private consultants for one day a week within their particular field of interest. Te University of São Paulo has had this arrangement for over 10 years. Brazil has also built 25 science and technology parks, with a further 17 planned or under construction, and the country's main high-tech hub, centred on the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in São Paulo state, encourages frequent meetings between alumni who have founded spin-offs and recent graduates who are in the process of doing so.
In São Paulo, state research funding agency FAPESP has its own tried and tested method for creating relationships between industry and academia. In 1995 it began a programme whereby it issues annual calls for research proposals in partnership with the private sector. FAPESP and each company taking part work together throughout the entire process: they form a joint committee to select proposals to fund; they contribute half of the costs of the research each; and they oversee the collaboration together. “FAPESP has found a way of multiplying its money this way,” says agency head Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz. Te popularity of the programme has grown enormously over time, aided by the booming economy that has furnished Brazilian firms with extra cash. Companies taking part include aerospace specialist Embraer, cosmetics firm Natura, Petrobras (oil), Vale (mining), Whirlpool (home appliances) and Telefónica (telecommunications).
There are also signs that Brazil is beginning to crack the hardest chestnut in technology transfer. “The biggest challenge in Brazil today is not so much getting industry and academia to come together, which we have shown we can do, but to get industry to do its own research,” explains Brito. “If you manage that, collaborations between industry and academia will happen naturally.” For example, in the past year Vale, based in Rio de Janeiro, has committed to building three campuses to house a US$400-million technology institute.
Latin America's other economic powers — Argentina and Mexico — are working hard to catch-up with Brazil. Surveys carried out a decade ago found that just 5% of companies in Argentina and 6% of companies in Mexico were collaborating formally with universities and other public research institutions. Santiago Villa, director of the technology transfer office at Argentina's national science council, CONICET, says that the culture has since shifted. He explains that both CONICET and Argentina's recently created ministry of science, technology and productive innovation, MINCYT, have intensified engagement with the private sector at both regional and national levels. In 2010 CONICET signed over 130 agreements with companies and more than 20 public-private partnership deals for applied high-tech projects.
A further significant development in Argentina is the commercial expansion of the Fundación Instituto Leloir (FIL), a non-profit biomedical research centre based in Buenos Aires. FIL has created a technology transfer office, INIS Biotech, and a bioincubator, the Center for Biotechnological Development (CeDeBio), which allows start-up companies to use its research facilities and equipment. INIS Biotech also works with CONICET on technology transfer and helps coordinate public funding from MINCYT and national research funding agency ANPCYT. INIS Biotech president Fernando Pitossi reckons stem cell research is one to watch in the country. “There is a greater critical mass of groups working on stem cells today in Argentina,” he says. “Not long ago there were 14 [groups], but now there are 45.” Stem cell research in the region is also supported by a joint funding programme, PROBITEC, that was set up by Argentina and Brazil in 2009.
Mexico has also made significant strides in developing public-private research collaborations. An injection of cash into healthcare research by the country's wealthiest man, Carlos Slim, led to the creation of the Mexico City-based Carlos Slim Health Institute in 2007. Roberto Tapia-Conyer, its director, says its public-private partnerships with organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the government of Spain and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help the region meet UN Millennium Development Goals. Ricardo Mujica, who is in charge of the institute's social investments, adds that the institute has a keen interest in projects that adapt available technologies for health purposes: “For example, our partners have developed applications for sending mobile phone messages to help care for people with diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.”
Another catalyst of home-grown R&D in Mexico is Langebio, a two-year-old laboratory that is currently sequencing the genomes of avocado, common beans and a small carnivorous plant that has one of the smallest known genomes of flowering plants. Langebio has its own intellectual property office and is busy spinning off its first company, which will focus on weed control systems and novel fertilizers. Langebio's head, Luis Herrera-Estrella, is optimistic about the lab's potential to create new jobs for scientists in Mexico, but recognizes that change is needed to make technology transfer easier. “Mexican legislation imposes some restriction on researchers,” he explains. “There is some potential conflict of interest in creating a spin-off [company] if your original research was funded with public money. The situation is normal in Europe and the United States, but it still needs to be legally resolved in Mexico.”
Boosting private investment and innovation in R&D is an issue of major concern to most countries in Latin America, and there is now significant political will to make it happen. Almost all countries in the region have developed legal instruments and provide direct public funding to support business R&D and innovation, and many have implemented tax mechanisms to further stimulate the sector. Costa Rica can certainly attest to the benefits of removing hurdles to high-tech investment.
“The biggest challenge in Brazil today is to get industry to do its own research.”
Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP