For every 1,000 researchers employed in Brazil’s productive sector, only five patents are registered per year, compared with 29 in the UK and 41 in the US. While some areas of Brazilian industry have seen innovation flourish, the disparity between scientific knowledge and its benefit to the population is great. Pre-salt oil exploration, soy development and the agricultural boom aside, for the most part, the venture capital hasn’t been as available in Brazil as it has in the US and Europe.
Over the last decade, government agencies have had to fill this gap. The Financing Agency for Studies and Projects (Finep) is setting out to do for Brazilian innovation what BNDES did for the country’s infrastructure, providing much-needed funding that has already amounted to the accumulation of some R$15 billion in assets. It is now the fifth-largest state-controlled lender in the country, discussed in the same breath as Banco do Brasil and CAIXA, and destined to become an autonomous national innovation agency.
The small, dynamic companies it seeks to support remain relatively few in number, but are gradually emerging. Finep’s budget ballooned from R$2 billion in 2010 to R$11 billion last year, all destined to stimulate tech and start-up firms. Its funding application process timeframe also tumbled from 450 days to just 30, proving immeasurably more attractive to those needing to stay at the cutting edge of innovation.
The Sao Paulo Research Foundation (Fapesp) has also been providing stimulus through its Innovation Research Into Small Companies (PIPE) grants for research that small companies would otherwise not afford. At the other end of the scale, Fapesp has also been involved in multi-million dollar joint ventures with the likes of GlaxoSmithKline and Natura, in the fields of sustainable chemistry and wellbeing respectively. Like CNPq, the overarching goal of all of these entities is to create conditions for research that will bring significant social and economic impact on the country. Events like Fapesp Week in London are helping Brazil enter into international debates on research and the global science community is taking ever more notice of the priority it is being afforded.
GranBio is the pioneering Brazilian biotech company behind a green revolution looking to transform the country’s abundant biomass into renewable energy and biochemicals. Two years after its creation in 2011, GranBio was already being named among the most innovative companies on the continent, both in terms of its product and its structure.
GranBio sugarcane straw collection. Photograph: PR
Biofuels already account for nearly 20 percent of Brazil’s energy make-up, and GranBio has seized upon the potential for converting cellulose into sugar and then into ‘second generation’ ethanol. The company’s CEO Bernardo Gradin expects the process to bring about a 50 percent increase in ethanol production, without the need for more planting of sugarcane.
Following experimental planting in Bahia, GranBio announced the start of operations at its US$265m second-generation ethanol plant in Alagoas state at the end of last year. The first of its kind in the southern hemisphere, its construction is a major step on the road to Brazil realizing its huge biomass energy potential. Brazilian farmers sought to grow the cane that produced the most sugar rather than the most cellulose, but GranBio’s new ‘energy cane’ harnesses the country’s impressive photosynthetic efficiency to yield three times as much biomass.
BNDES invested in the first GranBio plant and is a minority stakeholder, while a partnership with Rhodia, part of Belgium’s Solvay group, is already in place for the production of N-butanol, but the future is even brighter. By controlling the production chain from start to finish, Gradin’s goal of creating biofuel competitive with hydrocarbons could revolutionise the energy mix not just in Brazil, but around the world.
Q&A: Mauricio Lopes, president of Embrapa
Embrapa’s innovation in agriculture is one of Brazil’s greatest success stories, helping it become one of the world’s biggest food producers.
How well does Embrapa interact with industry?
Our goal is to create synergies with the sector, not compete with it. The impact of our cultivars has traditionally been great because industry was not ready, but now companies have come to Brazil and started investing, creating jobs, bringing new technology and investing in innovation.
What is the next step for Brazilian agriculture?
We are gradually moving from an economic impact rationale to the three dimensions of sustainability. The economic impact is important, because without profits and revenues, agriculture will not move forward, but we cannot forget the social and environmental side. We now have to plan the next revolution, the verticalisation of production.
How do you see Embrapa’s future?
Innovation increasingly depends on basic knowledge, and we want to get closer to universities because this represents an opportunity for Embrapa to expand its knowledge base. Synthetic biology, for example, will certainly cause ruptures. When the UK can produce a steak in a petri dish, we need to think what that means for a country with 200 million head of cattle. When will that rupture happen? This way, we are preparing for it.
Responding to climate change
A clear indication of Embrapa’s desire to align with the country’s universities is a pioneering partnership with Unicamp in response to the changing environmental reality in Brazil and around the world. The cooperation agreement is centred around genetic and biotech research into developing crops better suited to the changing climate. Creating genetically modified strains more resistant to pests as well as extreme weather, and predicting the challenges that changing climate patterns will bring, are essential to preventing future food crises. As well as involving up to 80 scientists, Unicamp students will be encouraged to experiment in the search for new products that could shape the future food needs of the country.
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