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Partnering agreements

Green chemistry

Braskem acquires competence in biotechnology

NELSON PROVAZIGetting five researchers hired by one company: This was the achievement of the group headed by professor Gonçalo Guimarães Pereira, from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) Biology Institute – Department of Genetics, Evolution and Biochemistry. The five researchers included two doctoral students, two post-doctoral students and one student enrolled in a master’s degree program. They were hired by Braskem, a Brazilian petrochemical company that ranks eighth in the world. Brasken is interested in adopting sustainable production; more specifically, the company intends to use biotechnology input for the plastics industry. These raw materials are to be made from renewable sources, especially sugarcane and microorganisms. “All of a sudden, I have no more students in my group”, jokes professor Pereira, coordinator of the “Green route for propane” project funded by FAPESP’s Partnership for Innovation/PITE Program. This R$ 8 million project is being conducted by his team and Braskem; half of the funding was provided by FAPESP. “We achieved good results in the course of the last three years and we filed two patents requests. Our role at the university is to work in the field of science aligned with future technology rather than to produce technology”, says Pereira. He explains that Brasken wants to be a leading company in terms of using new technology and, to this end, decided to resort to the university, whose mission is to produce innovative ideas based on creative freedom. To make the solutions produced under the PITE program feasible (though these solutions cannot be disclosed yet), Braskem entered into an agreement with the National Biosciences Laboratory (LNBio), one of the three laboratories associated with the National Energy and Materials Research Center (CNPEM), together with the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS) and the Bioethanol Technology Center (CTBE) in Campinas, State of São Paulo. The agreement signed with LNBio provides for the establishment of the Braskem Biotechnology Platform on the premises of the institution – the facility will be rented to Braskem. “This will allow the company to resort to the instruments and to our researchers’ expertise in the fields of structural and molecular biology – which are important for in-depth scientific knowledge at the current stage of the project”, says professor Kleber Franchini, director of LNBio, an entity serving the academic community. This arrangement will also allow the company’s needs to be met on a timely basis. “The Braskem laboratory established in LNBio is an environment that combines the creative chaos of the university with the restrictions of a company. The lab and the work of the recently hired former students will allow the technology to mature before it is incorporated by the company”, Pereira adds.

The five students hired by Braskem to work at LNBio are post-doctoral students Joahana Rincones Perez, the first student to be hired, in January, and Inês Lunardi; doctoral students Maria Carolina de Barros Grassi and Lucas Pedersen Parizzi; and master’s degree candidate Felipe Galzerani. The last four students were hired in October. All of them had been given grants by Braskem. Prospects indicate that the number of researchers should increase. “Within the next two to three years, as our research work progresses, we want to have 40 researchers from Braskem at LNBio”, says Antônio Queiroz, the company’s director of technology. “We didn’t have the expertise in the field of biotechnology and the way to gain access to this expertise was to set up a partnership with Unicamp and FAPESP”, Queiroz explains. In synergy with the work being developed, Braskem also entered into an agreement with Novozymes, a Danish multinational company that develops enzymes for industrial processes.

Academic competency
Braskem recently inaugurated an ethylene plant in the State of Rio Grande do Sul. Ethylene, a by-product of ethanol, is a raw material used to make polyethylene, a widely used plastic, which in turn is used to manufacture toys and home products. Braskem intends to invest more heavily in renewable chemical raw materials. “We are now investing in biotechnology. We want to become the world’s leader in sustainable chemistry for renewable products and petrochemicals (the source of raw materials for plastics), in order to use less water and energy, emit less CO2, and capture this gas from the atmosphere”, says Queiroz. He is aware that the company needs well-trained professionals in the field to achieve this objective. “Human resources are the most valuable asset in this partnership with Unicamp and FAPESP”, he says.

“This process shows that we are involved in a new university-company interaction model for the generation of technology and for the hiring of highly qualified professionals. We know that most of the research work around the world is conducted at companies, but no company can produce anything on its own. Even in countries such as the United States, research work has to start at universities, because this is where the innovative ideas are born”, says Pereira. For the newly hired students, the partnership is a great opportunity for professional growth. “I’ve always wanted to work in the business world and in the field of sustainable development”, says 25-year old biologist Maria Grassi. She is going to present her doctoral thesis in July 2011. Its subject is the genetic modification of microorganisms to generate eco-friendly polymers.

Lucas Parizzi still has two more years to go before presenting his doctoral thesis. He has a degree in computer science, with specialization in bioinformation technology. “I have always been interested in genetics and have been studying bioinformation technology since my second year at university”, he says. His doctoral thesis will focus on a computer simulation of the metabolic behavior of microorganisms. “It was great to be hired by the company, as my studies are aligned with the company’s needs. Nevertheless, I have the possibility of changing the focus of my work in the middle of my doctorate without jeopardizing the objectives of Braskem and those of my research studies”. Other students from professor Gonçalo Pereira’s group are being prepared to work at the company’s laboratory at LNBio. “We already have two students enrolled in the master’s degree program and two enrolled in the introduction to sciences program, who will qualify to be hired as researchers by the company”, says Pereira.

The project
Green routes for propene (nº 07/58336-3); Type Program for Technological Innovation Partnering (Pite); Coordinator Gonçalo Amarante Guimarães Pereira – Unicamp; Investment R$ 1,139,076.78, US$ 1,597,197.53 (FAPESP) and R$ 4,000,000.00 (Braskem)

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