Experts discuss challenges of accelerating technology transfer

Successful experiences in São Paulo and Catalonia were shared by researchers at FAPESP Week Barcelona

By Diego Freire, in Barcelona | Agência FAPESP – The experience of fostering technology transfer during the construction of Brazil’s new synchrotron light source in Campinas, São Paulo State, was one of the cases of successful interaction between research institutions and industry shared during FAPESP Week Barcelona on Thursday (May 28).

Hosted by FAPESP in partnership with Research Centres of Catalonia (CERCA) at the Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site in Barcelona, the two-day event continues today (May 29), bringing together researchers from São Paulo and the autonomous community of Catalonia.

In 2014 FAPESP and the Brazilian Innovation Agency (FINEP) launched the first public call for proposals to contribute to the development of Sirius, the new Brazilian synchrotron light source. Sirius is currently being built by the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS) at the National Energy & Materials Research Centre (CNPEM) in Campinas. The call aims to support the development of innovative products, processes and services offered by companies in São Paulo State.

According to Harry Westfahl Júnior, Scientific Director of LNLS and a participant in the round-table session on technology transfer in Brazilian research and in Catalonia, the initiative is designed to develop both the institution, by providing part of the technology required for Sirius to operate, and the corporate sector in São Paulo.

“The whole project to develop Sirius has been structured so that investment won’t be confined to the science required for the accelerator but will also spill over into the local economy,” Westfahl said. “When you need private enterprise to engage with projects and produce technology, it’s important to create the means for firms to develop as well.”

According to Westfahl, these partnerships drive progress both for the institution, which benefits from the technology produced, and for businesses, which learn by absorbing new techniques and processes.

Sirius will be one of the world’s first fourth-generation synchrotron light sources, with a 3 GeV synchrotron accelerator capable of emitting 0.28 nanometre radians (nm rad). The facility will keep Brazil competitive in the field for the next decades but requires new technology.

“The hundreds of magnets that make up the accelerator resemble parts of motors or generators but have certain specific features,” Westfahl said. “The company that’s working on this soon realised the specific features extended beyond its current capabilities and took the bold step of setting up a laboratory inside its facility dedicated to Sirius. This investment will enable the firm not only to supply what’s needed for the accelerator, but also to grow and expand its core business.”

Funding for the call issued by FAPESP and FINEP, currently in the selection stage, will total R$40 million, with each institution providing half. Twenty-two proposals have been submitted, and each firm selected may receive up to R$1.5 million.

Brazil’s Silicon Valley

The city of Campinas, where Sirius is being built, is “a leader in Brazil’s communications revolution” and the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) is “Brazil’s answer to MIT” (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), according to Wired, the US technology magazine (July 2000 issue). For Hugo Luis Fragnito from UNICAMP’s Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute, this recognition is due to the technology transfer model implemented by the university in the 1970s, leading to the creation of a programme in optical communications and then to the development of Brazil’s first optical fibre.

“It’s a simple model, involving transfer from the university to industry through R&D centres,” Fragnito said during the round-table session. “But it also transfers ‘brains’: researchers are transferred together with the technology, ensuring that not only the technology advances but knowledge itself.”

Fragnito highlighted the university’s role in the process. “In addition to good ideas, institutions need properly trained personnel to support researchers and create a favourable environment for the identification of opportunities. Catalonia has had positive experiences in this regard, especially in areas linked to biotechnology,” he said.

An example is Barcelona’s Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO), which prospects for research foundations, sponsors and philanthropic institutions to fund innovations and provides continuous administrative, technical and scientific support for researchers, including supervision of patenting procedures.

According to VHIO’s Laura Soucek, who also participated in the session, the toughest challenge is addressing researchers’ difficulties with business development in their fields of expertise.

“You need to have someone on the team who has the requisite business know-how,” Soucek told Agência FAPESP. “The university should provide researchers with this kind of support. Brazil is ahead in the management of technology transfer in large-scale projects like Sirius, as well as similar initiatives at UNICAMP and other universities in São Paulo. Useful lessons can be learned from the bridges being built between research institutions and the business community in Brazil.”