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The challenges of managing business projects

The problems that industrial researchers face range from knowing how to communicate to learning how to assess the commercial viability of research projects.

Daniel BuenoBeing flexible, knowing how to communicate with peers and laymen, being able to deal with deadline-induced pressure and being able to assess the commercial viability of a project are, in general, the key requirements for corporate researchers. “The change in profile for someone who leaves academia and moves into industry is substantial,” says biologist Ana Paula Azambuja, 32, director of science in the area of life sciences for Natura, a leading Brazilian cosmetics company. As opposed to specializing in just one area, there is an expansion of connections among topics ranging from business transactions and applications-oriented research, to speeding up the capture of opportunities such as new technologies and partnerships. 
“In academia, people are selected based on in-depth knowledge in a few areas of research, whereas in industry they look for strong technical knowledge without losing sight of the cross-cutting aspect,” says Azambuja, who earned her doctorate in the area of cell and tissue biology at the University of São Paulo (USP) and did post-doctoral work at the University of Malaga in Spain. This cross-cutting aspect, she feels, encompasses not just the technical standpoint, but new technologies and different areas of knowledge as well, and there is always the market to consider. Knowing how to communicate properly is considered essential in industry because researchers are the bridge with the company’s marketing team.

For mechanical engineer André Ferrarese, 35, who is a manager in the area of innovation for Mahle Metal Leve, there is no disconnect between the speed at which companies and universities conduct research. “This is a stereotype about academia that is not borne out in partnerships with universities,” says Ferrarese, who has an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree from the USP Polytechnic School. In his opinion, the key issue is focus and not speed. “In academia researchers pay closer attention to technical content than to commercial viability, while in industry, the focus is on demand that is commercially viable,” he notes. As a result, in many cases corporate researchers let technical opportunities slide because they are unclear about what they represent at that time. “In the academic world the amount of time allocated to our projects is based on the duration of the research grant; in industry, it is based on the size of the deliverable,” says Azambuja. For longer projects that last from three to five years for example, the strategy requires intermediate deliverables in shorter periods, of from one to two years.

Project management in academia needs to be rethought, in Azambuja’s opinion. “I never had any management training in any of my projects at the undergraduate, master’s, doctoral or post-doctoral levels,” she observes. And this was the great difficulty she experienced when she started working at Natura that, like other industrial companies, constantly assesses its projects from different angles. “The reviews include timelines, budgets, applicability, and delivery deadlines; in other words, we have to be flexible from a management standpoint,” she notes. Ferrarese reports that he has noticed that universities are more and more interested in bringing in project management skills. “There is considerable interest in this type of discussion, which is related to the movement of generating patents and taking knowledge to the market, he says.” Ferrarese began his career as an intern while he was still an undergraduate, like most of the researchers at Mahle. “Since we do not have many research and development centers in companies in Brazil, it is natural for researchers to continue their academic training after they are hired.”