Successful strategies for promoting innovation

At Texas Tech University, FAPESP scientific director talks about the Foundation’s funding lines to promote collaborative research between universities and companies

By Heitor Shimizu, in Lubbock  |  Agência FAPESP – In Brazil’s worst economic period in many years, the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) has been able to achieve major significant results in supporting the country’s innovation. This distinction was highlighted in a presentation by FAPESP Scientific Director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz at Texas Tech University.

On the final day of FAPESP Week Nebraska-Texas, held September 18-22 in the United States, Brito Cruz mentioned the current economic crisis as he spoke before a group of Brazilian and American researchers about FAPESP Engineering Research Centers.

“We have established centers in partnership with Peugeot-Citroen, Shell, Natura as well as two centers with GSK. And we have seven new centers that will be announced in February 2018, with Statoil, Koppert and the São Martinho group as well as four others with Shell,” he said.

“These 11 Engineering Research Centers were and will be opened between 2015 and 2018, which constitutes the worst period in Brazil’s economy in a very long time. This shows that the companies are committed to long-term initiatives and that FAPESP has an effective strategy in which every real or dollar of the Foundation is matched by a real or dollar from companies and through sizeable investments made by universities,” he said.

Brito Cruz presented an overview of the relations between universities – particularly state public institutions – and the private sector in R&D and talked about FAPESP’s role in funding innovation in the State of São Paulo.

“At FAPESP, we are working on two main lines to fund this type of undertaking. One of them refers to what we call collaborative research between universities and industry, in which FAPESP and the company jointly fund projects led by a researcher from the university – generally involving several students – in partnership with company researchers. On these projects, we have hundreds of partner companies, both Brazilian and foreign,” he said.

“Derived from this line are the Engineering Research Centers, which are projects in which university researchers associate themselves with researchers in companies and submit a center proposal to FAPESP. The proposals specify that the director be a researcher or professor from the university and the deputy director be a researcher from the company who then becomes a visiting researcher at the university. Other company researchers can also become visiting researchers at the university and work at the Center,” he said.

According to Brito Cruz, the idea is that researchers from both sides actually become connected and are not just “looking in from the outside.” The Engineering Research Centers have 10-year agreements in order to engage in complex and challenging research studies.

Another FAPESP line of funding highlighted was the mechanisms that target innovative research projects in small companies. “In the State of São Paulo, any small company, even a startup with a single employee, can submit a proposal to FAPESP to request funding of its research activity that would allow it to improve its processes and competitiveness,” he said.

The FAPESP Innovative Research in Small Business (PIPE) funds projects up to R$ 200,000 in Phase 1, conducting research into the technical feasibility of the proposed research study. It also funds projects up to R$ 1 million for periods of up to two years in Phase 2, designed to carry out the research study itself. “These are very significant seed funding figures,” Brito Cruz said.

“Through PIPE, FAPESP has already funded 1,100 companies over the past 20 years. In 2016, we approved an average of four projects per week, which is quite substantial, but our goal is to approve one start-up project per week in the State of São Paulo,” he said.

Innovation agencies

“In the State of São Paulo, 57.2% of R&D investments are made by companies, which involves a great effort on the part of the sector. Pairing industry and universities to create innovation demands that there be as many researchers at the university as there are in the corporate sector. Successful collaboration does not come from efforts made only among university researchers or among corporate attorneys and accountants. If there are researchers in a particular company, there’s a good chance that they can find common ground with researchers at universities and research institutes,” Brito Cruz said.

The FAPESP scientific director underscored the fact that universities in the State of São Paulo have worked hard to link their educational missions to opportunities associated with business.

“It is something that is well-established in the State of São Paulo, where the major research universities establish innovation agencies. They are not just for technology transfers. It’s much more than that. These agencies are offices charged with fostering and implementing opportunities to interact with industry, government and society in order to connect research conducted at the university with opportunities presented by those sectors,” he said.

“These innovation agencies handle connections with business and government and provide assistance to startups, whether they are established by students and professors, or are run-of-the-mill startups that are seeking advice or needing assistance on particular matters – such as licensing or patents – or needing to use some type of equipment, for example,” he said.

Brito Cruz noted that universities in the State of São Paulo have also been involved in science and technology parks as well as in business incubators for startups. “Some have also tried to organize locally to attract corporate R&D centers or have worked at R&D centers together with companies,” he said.

Texas Tech University hub

Kimberly Gramm, managing director of the Innovation Hub at Research Park of Texas Tech University (TTU) also spoke during FAPESP Week about collaboration between universities and industry.

Gramm explained that the Hub, as it is called, is a “place to foster enterprising and intelligent ideas to create social or commercial value with meaningful impact.”

TTU’s goal is that the Hub, inaugurated in 2015, become an important center for entrepreneurship and innovation in the university system as well as the western region of Texas. “We want to be a place for innovation, collaboration and creative collision, designed for creative individuals,” Gramm said.

“We have 11 ongoing programs, seven under development, 10 partnerships with companies and we have conducted training and orientation activities for more than 8,000 people,” she said.