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José Ellis Ripper Filho: Alternatives for learning

With one of the most singular biographies from the world of science and technology in Brazil, José Ellis Ripper Filho, 65 years old, is a businessman in the telecommunications area, as the president of AsGa, a company that produces equipment for transmissions via optical fiber. He is also a successful example of migration from the classroom to private enterprise. An electronic engineer by training, before venturing into the risky world of business, he became a professor at the Physics Institute of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), when he came back to Brazil after spending a few years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and as a researcher with the Bell Laboratories of the American company AT&T (nowadays Lucent), in the United States.

This experience as a researcher, professor, development director of an electronic manufacturer, and, finally, a successful businessman, has led Ripper to be invited to take a seat on the board of several entities linked to the sector, including Unicamp. The owner of a broad vision about some of the main Brazilian themes connected with universities and, above all, with the production of innovation and research and development in companies, the businessman has opinions that go far beyond common sense both on Brazilian universities and on innovation. In this interview, he tells a little about his ideas and talks of his education at the Aeronautic Institute of Technology (ITA), where his study group constructed the forerunner of the first Brazilian computer, as an end of course task.

We would like to know your opinion about the proposal from Professors José Fernando Perez and Fernando Reinach, presented at the National Science and Technology Council (CNTC), of which you are part, about taking the tax burden off companies that contract doctors, as a way of encouraging business innovation.
I think it is useful, but relatively collateral. Any incentive for companies is good. But a doctor’s education is for academic research. In a company, development is done. This doesn’t mean that a doctor is no use. If he is good, he will quickly learn to work in another way.

In AsGa, do you employ doctors? How many are there?
Today, there are two, we have had three before. But, actually, Brazilian companies don’t have the size to do research. Few companies in the world do research. They do development. And the way for doing development is different from the way for doing research. Which does not mean to say that a good researcher does not adapt himself and be very useful. But the idea that you need to have a doctor in companies is not the reality. Now, I’ll certainly give all my support to any incentive that comes for companies. I don’t mean to say that I’m against the proposal, quite the contrary. It just happens that it is not for the lack of doctors that companies are not doing research.

Why are they not doing it?
First, nobody knows how much is done. All the figures are absolute guesswork. There are no statistics in Brazil in this area. What data is there? A survey by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE)? I don’t even know how this one is done. There’s the questionnaire of the National Association for Research, Development and Engineering of Innovative Companies (ANPEI), which goes to some companies. What happens to this questionnaire? First, a large number do not answer. What happens, for example, with AsGa? I pick up this questionnaire and I send it to my accountant. If you ask exactly how much I spend on research and development (R&D), I don’t know. Maybe AsGa has good data, because, as we have always worked with the Law on Information Technology, we put R&D on the books. But it isn’t the best way.

Is it a different way of accounting?
The Law on Information Technology considers that investment in a quality system and in human resources is an investment in R&D. The majority of companies in Brazil have no incentive to do this. Rather, a law has now been regulated allowing R&D to be considered as an expense and deducted for accounting purposes. The greater part of the companies in Brazil, even those that do R&D, do not even know that they do R&D. But some actually do it.

But what do they do? Development? A new product?
They do development, things that would be regarded as R&D, but are of no interest to the companies. They make a new product, a new production technology. Now, there are other problems in Brazil: first, constant changes in the law, and second, the interest rates, which oblige businessman to have a short term vision. It is clearly very difficult for a company, even a large one, to come and to say “I am going to do something that will perhaps bring a result ten years from now”. What is done in companies is product development. To do this, it is not necessarily required to have a professional Ph.D. For example, two years ago, my head of the development area had a doctorate. Now, the professional who is heading up development just has a graduate’s degree. And he is exceptional, one of the best professionals doing development in the country, but he doesn’t have an academic curriculum, he doesn’t have a doctorate, he doesn’t have any work published.

Isn’t doing innovation in companies one of the ways out for the country’s economy?
But of course. I think that the people from the university do not understand what industrial development is. They don’t understand, and it is not for them to understand. What is the product of the university? People. Research at the university is a means, not an end. I would say that few people from the university realize this. So, why is research done at the university? Because we have to train people who for most of the time are going to work with knowledge that does not exist today.

Only in the technological area?
In any area. Even in law. Everything evolves. When 20 , 30 years have passed, everything changes. That is why I think that research at the university is extremely important.

It is an apprenticeship in the method of learning?
Precisely. By making students participate in the process of creating knowledge, the university makes these citizens imbued in the process. Knowledge is something ongoing, and they will have to carry on with this process. I had an example of this at Unicamp, as soon as I came back to Brazil.

Was this at the beginning of the 1970s, when you returned from your master’s degree and doctorate at the MIT and from the work at the Bell Labs?
Precisely, I came back from the United States in 1971. Soon afterwards, the Brazilian Physics Society decided to carry out a study about Brazilian physicists and contracted an opinion poll company. A woman came to interview me with a standard questionnaire. I think I made her head spin, because there were two questions running. One, “was the education for graduation important in your professional life?”. For this, there were options for a reply like “a lot”, more or less”, and I put “a lot”. The second question was: “Were the disciplines of your undergraduate course important in your professional life?” On this one, I put the lowest mark, “it was not important”. I never studied any discipline from the area of specialization where I worked. Now, I had an extremely sound education as an undergraduate in electrical engineering at ITA and as a postgraduate student at the MIT.

Then you migrated to physics?
Actually, I never decided to be a physicist. I went to work in a laboratory of Bell Labs. There, a Brazilian group settled in the United States, which was more or less informally linked together and had Rogério [Rogério Cezar Cerqueira Leite] as a sort of leader, wanted to go back to Brazil.

This began in 1970.
This attempt to go back to Brazil began in 1968. On the first attempt, Rogério arrives in Rio, enthusiastic, in a period of vacations. “Let’s go to the University of Brasilia”, he said. To which I responded: “Rogério, I’m not going to the UnB”. He asked: “Why not? It’s a new mentality, it’s formidable”. I replied: “Rogério, the UnB is too close to the lion’s den”. A few days went by, the telephone rang at home at 6 in the morning. It was Rogério: “Have you read today’s paper? You were right”. [in 1968, police invasions occurred, and there was a serious institutional crisis at the university.]

Besides Professor Rogério and you, who else was part of this group?
Sérgio Porto, Paulo Sakanaka and Nélson Parada. When we came back, we started to attract more people than this original nucleus.

Why did they decide to go back?
I have already asked myself this question several times, and I have a reply that is very easy to give aposteriori , like everything in life. There is an American expression that talks about a big fish in a small pond, a small fish in a big pond. I was at Bell Labs at the time – and just in the building where I worked, which was not the same as Rogério’s, there were 1,500 Ph.Ds.

You were just one more.
If one more Nobel Prize came out of Bell, it wouldn’t make the least difference. I thought: “The day I leave, the feeling I have is that the cleaning lady is going to notice that the trash can is empty”. I think that Brazil used to offer, as it certainly has offered, an opportunity for making a difference. I don’t know if it was good or bad, but plenty would not have happened, had I not done it personally, if Rogério hadn’t done it personally. Not that we were less or more important, it’s because there weren’t any others. This gave us a very great professional motivation.

How was the beginning at Unicamp?
I began to analyze, and I arrived at the conclusion that I was doing more physics than engineering, and I decided to go to the Physics Institute. But I never took the decision “I am going to be a physicist”. If I had not come to Unicamp, perhaps I would never have taken up the position of a physicist.

When you joined ITA, did you have the idea of being a professor, a businessman?
Not much, no, I didn’t. A little while ago I gave a talk there at ITA, in a seminar on innovation. The talk had three titles. The first was: “How to make the right decisions for the wrong reasons”. The second: “How to let life take decisions for you”. And the third: “How to become a businessman by chance”. Analyzing the main professional decisions that I have taken in my life, they worked out all right not for the reasons why I took the decision. Less than a year before joining ITA, I had never heard of ITA.

Were you living in Rio de Janeiro?
Yes, I was living in Rio. I think that the main reason why I went to ITA was that I wanted to leave home, I wanted to be independent. But that is to look at it aposteriori . I chose electronics because I didn’t want aeronautics, the only two options in those days. It was certainly one of the most important decisions in my life. Being educated at ITA, and particularly education before the movement of 1964, was in actually a school for leaderships. Afterwards, the institution became a good engineering school because it had good students, independently of the professors.

After 1968, was there a change of professors there as well?
In 1964 it coincided with the departure of Air Marshall Casimiro Montenegro Filho [who conceived the Aerospace Technical Center (CTA) and ITA] who was about to retire. The brigadier who arrived regarded that system as madness, and came into conflict with the professors. So those on the highest level left. In six months, 22 out of 25 had left. And the institute never recovered. ITA became famous because it has exceptional students, who remain locked up for five years, in an exhausting regime of studies. But what makes a good school are the pupils, the professors are a nuisance.

Isn’t it the other way round?
No, it’s true. This is an opinion that shocks everybody. I consider that the most important thing in my professional education is called the Santos Dumont Academic Center. More important than the doctorate at the MIT.

Because the academic center at ITA – and this was destroyed by the 1964 revolution – used to be the heart of the institution. When I arrived there, I asked: “Where do they need people?” They said: “There on the radio”. The students had invented and set up a radio station, building a good deal of the equipment. They put me to visit the recording companies to ask for donations of records in exchange for playing them on the radio. I had just turned 18 and went to São Paulo, from recording company to recording company, to get discs donated. Later on, I was president of the Athletic Club and had to manage a budget. I needed to take care, because that was public money, I had to call for tenders, etc. I think that this experience was more important even than the course itself.

Was it a question of a creative process as well?
There was the creative process and the cultural one. Every Monday, we had a first class play or a concert. That’s important at the beginning of the students’ lives. Furthermore, there was the exhausting course. The pass mark was at least 6.5, between 5 and 6.5 in any subject you had to do the exam again, and below 5 you were dismissed. This second part has been maintained. With the fame that ITA acquired, doing a nationwide entrance exam, it began to attract the best people in Brazil, and it continues to be an excellent school, in spite of not having good professors. No way you can compare ITA’s teaching staff with Unicamp or USP.

Do they know about this opinion of yours?
Yes, they do. I have already said this there. I never said this to speak badly about the professors, I have always said that ITA’s role belongs to the pupils. Including this kind of analysis connected with my work at Unicamp, where I am on the University Council today. Incidentally, I have a profession and a hobby. My hobby is being president of AsGa, my profession is being a counselor on unpaid councils. I am at Unicamp, on the National Science and Technology Council, at the Telecommunications Research and Development Center (CPqD), at the Renato Archer Research Center (Cenpra), on the advisory council of the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep), and on the scientific council of Uniemp Institute. Up until a month ago, I was with the Committee for Postgraduate Courses in Higher Education (Capes).

You said that the group that was in the United States came to Unicamp. How was this done?
It was all in the head of Zeferino [Zeferino Vaz, the creator of Unicamp]. To start with, he had difficulties in attracting top level personnel to Unicamp. It was all more or less certain that we would go to USP, but resistances from the inside began there, and we came to Unicamp. Zeferino realized that the arrival of a high level group would help to attract people from other areas. But he already also had the idea of the university as the center of a complex for the city of Campinas, and that made us enthusiastic. He helped us, and I recall that, a few years later, when I was the director of the physics department, he heard that in Brasilia they were analyzing the decision on the place to set up the CPqD, and that Campinas was in second place on the list.

What was the first?
It was São José dos Campos. So I went to Zeferino and said: “This is what is happening, and you must get involved, it’s time to talk to José Antônio de Alencastro e Silva”, who was the president of Telebrás. That very moment, he called Alencastro, inviting him to visit Unicamp. Alencastro arrived and went into a conversation with Zeferino. When he came out of it, the CPqD belonged to Campinas.

Did Unicamp already have this relationship with Telebrás?
No, there was none. Telebrás decided to come in afterwards. Telebrás’s first president, Euclides Quandt de Oliveira, who afterwards was a minister, when this state sector was created, right at the end of 1972, realized that if he created the CPqD (founded in 1976) immediately, it would not work out. It was the university that was carrying out research in telecommunications, and as he couldn’t kill the hen that was laying the golden eggs? So Telebrás postponed the creation of this center, and the money it would have spent was invested in projects in the universities to create critical mass. And one of the first projects approved was with Unicamp, in the group that I was running, for the development of optical fiber communication. Years later, I met Quandt de Oliveira at an airport. He had retired, so then I took advantage and asked him: “Minister, when you approved that project, did you imagine that optical fiber would be important as it is today?” He said: “No, I thought that was complete madness”. “So why did you approve that project?” He replied: “They said that you would form good people, that is what we were interested in”.

When did you do Zezinho ( Joey), the first computer project in Brazil?
That was in 1961. At ITA, the pupil has to do a project in his last year, which can be done in a group. In the vacations between the fourth and fifth years, I did a trip to Europe with four colleagues and two professors from ITA. I was in France, visiting some institutions, amongst them the state sector Companie des Machines Bull, which the French government had created. There they presented a few computers to us. “If the French can do it, why can’t we? Let’s make a computer”, we said soon afterwards. When we began to work, it became obvious that we would have neither the resources nor the time to carry out our original idea, something that could be industrialized afterwards. We changed the focus of the project to make something for laboratory use. In those days, there was no software, and the only solution was to make a very simple program. It would only add up and subtract, something that today one of the simplest little calculating machines does with a capacity that is a thousand times greater.

Who was in this group?
Alfred Voeffner, André Massareli and Fernando Vieira de Souza. So you could ask “what was the repercussion?” None! Nobody thought about that, none of us had any idea that that could be something pioneering.

Different from the Ugly Duckling (regarded as the first Brazilian computer, finalized at USP in 1972)?
Yes, but the Ugly Duckling was made under another scheme, almost a decade afterwards, with conscious investment in the area. Besides more resources, it was now included in a process. It wasn’t work for a course.

What was the name Zezinho for?
It was never the formal name. It was its pet name. We didn’t even think of initials or numbers. It was a didactic computer, transistorized. When the end of the year came, it became a point of honor to leave it working. We worked at the weekends, at Christmas, and even after graduation. It seems that, two years later, another student – I was then in the United States – took Zezinho as an individual work, to carry out a series of improvements, but afterwards I think it was cannibalized.

How did you go to the MIT?
I won a scholarship from the foundation of GE (General Electric). GE’s foundation would give ten scholarships for ten countries. I never studied so much as in those days in the United States. As I started to do well in the studies, they began to press me to do a doctorate. Drawn in by that atmosphere, I rang my wife, in November, and proposed: “Do you fancy getting married at Christmas?” Then I wrote to my mother, saying that if she gave me a ticket as a wedding present, I would get married in Brazil, otherwise I would marry by proxy. On return, I got a scholarship from the CNPq, and stayed until my doctorate. I think I should be in the Guinness book. I took my master’s and doctor’s degrees in four years. I began unmarried and finished with three children. Afterwards, I went to work with Bell Labs, where I stayed five years.

Was that where you got to know optical fiber?
Precisely. In 1970, two fundamental developments occurred: first, the group from Bell in which I was taking part managed to make a semiconductor laser that worked at room temperature. Before, it would have to be cooled down to a low temperature for it to work. That wasn’t practical. And the second, Corning Glass announced the first optical fiber produced in the laboratory. For us who were working in the area, it had become obvious that this system was going to be the dominant one. But this would take a long time yet to become economically important. After I returned to Brazil, I began to sell the idea of starting a program in this area, for us to arrive together with the others, because we had time and could train people.

Meaning: development here in Brazil was much less backward in this area than usually happens?
Our laboratory at Unicamp was the third in the world to make the second generation of this kind of laser, before Bell Labs. Well, it could be a question of asking why they did it before. If I want to make fun, I say “I had two students who didn’t know that it was difficult”.

But in reality how does this happen?
As the university’s product is people, it has a great advantage: abandoning a project practically without any trauma. The same thing doesn’t happen in a company’s research center, for example, where many decisions are needed to start a project, and stopping it becomes a traumatic process.

How did you give up the university and become a businessman?
That’s one of the many right decisions made for the wrong reasons. At the time the Law on Information Technology began, the Special Secretariat for Information Technology (SEI) contracted Unicamp to create the Microelectronics Institute, and I was going to run it. So I began to distance myself, little by little, from my laboratory at Unicamp. When the project was finally approved, political injunctions occurred and they decided to appoint another person to run it. Then I saw myself stranded without the ladder. Psychologically, I had already left the university, and it was very difficult to get back to being motivated, besides which I had passed on my position as head to another colleague. In this case, I had to decide whether to change profession or change country. With the family settled, I decided to change profession.

Where did you start?
My idea was to go to the area of microelectronics. I was in this process when the president of Elebra invited me to run the company’s development area. I did though tell him that I didn’t understand anything about electronics, nor about computers, and nothing about industrial development. The closest I came to the industry was at Bell Labs, and it was not so close as all that. So his reply made me enthusiastic: “We know that. We arrived at the conclusion that nobody in Brazil had ever done the development we wanted to do. And if we brought someone from abroad to work here, he’s not going to understand either”. I said, if that was the concept, then I would accept.

That was in 1983. What did Elebra produce in those days?
Telecommunication equipment, computer peripherals, printers, discs. I was hired to develop other telecommunication and transmission equipment etc. Afterwards, the company was reorganized as a holding company with various subsidiaries, including a components company, Elebra Microeletrônica, whose president I came to be, besides being the holding company’s technology director. But at the end of the Cruzado Plan (Econimic Plan in the mid-80´s that froze prices), Elebra was deep in debt. They decided to get rid of the microelectronics area and asked me if I believed in the project. I said that I did, and they asked me to get some partners. After a lot of legwork, I went to the wedding of a daughter of a colleague in São Paulo. There I found other colleagues from my class from my days at ITA, we started to drink, and after telling them of my career, one of them turned to me and said: “How much money do you need?”. I replied that unless I had at least US$ 1 million, there was no way we could talk. Thiswas now at the end of the 1980s. Then he said: “Don’t you want to negotiate with me?” That was how AsGa was born.

Who was the partner?
João MacDowell. He had an auto parts factory. An aunt of mine decided to make an advance on an inheritance, and we were able to make AsGa. He was very important, not only for the funds, but because he had experience in running a company. Afterwards, later, he decided to sell his part in the business.

As Ga was born to make what?
To make components, lasers, and detectors. They are things that go onto the end of an optical fiber. The name AsGa comes from gallium arsenide, a compound used a raw material for semiconductors and lasers. At the time, our dream was to evolve into making semiconductors. Later on, during the Collor Plan (Economic plan that, among other drastic measures, lifted most import barriers) the government did away with the components market in Brazil. They wanted to do away with the barriers, and they did away with the market. Because we didn’t lose out to imported components, we lost out to imported equipment. It became cheaper to import a kit for assembling the equipment here. So we began to migrate to making equipment.

How was the change?
We almost went bankrupt, but we had a project with the BNDES that was approved. They invested US$ 1 million in AsGa. Half in stock and half in a loan. And then we managed to survive and to grow once again on the basis of multiplexers, which do the transmission of several electrical or light signals at the same time.

You almost reached the R$ 100 million mark in sales.
With the rule on targets that made the telecommunication companies bring forward their investments, there was a huge bubble between mid-2000 and mid-2001. Everybody knew that was a bubble, only the fall was more violent than was expected when it burst, because the world-wide telecommunications market was slumping, and this caused a deeper crisis. We fell from R$ 90 million in sales in 2001 to R$ 27 million in 2002, an amount repeated in 2003. But this time we were much more prepared.

And the question of the Law on Innovation, of the famous supposition that a university professor is going to be able to leave and set up his company, work in the industry and to carry on with a certain link with the university. What do you think about this?
I think that the Law on Innovation, besides bringing some very good things, may correct some others. For example, today, a Brazilian government body cannot contract a company to develop a product. Under the current law, the government can only lend money to companies, it cannot do anything more. If, for example, the government wants to have a product that AsGa is going to have to develop, it can’t contract me to carry out this development. No Embraer would be possible today.

Is that the so-called purchasing power of the government?
No, it’s not for purchasing, it’s for development. In the United States, the government spends, hiring development in companies, twice what it spends on research in the universities. This is the main instrument of development in the developed countries, and it is allowed by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

And the work of a professor?
In all the countries of the world, providing consultancy is part of a professor’s work. Consultancy is the way the university understands the society for which it is training people. There’s no point in keeping the professors locked up in the university. When I was at Unicamp, do you know who the best remunerated professors were? The ones from the music department.

Because they would play music outside?
Because under the legislation of those days, the only thing you could earn outside was copyright. Except that it allowed the fee as copyright. So the musicians earned the same thing I would earn as a professor, besides the fee. Are you going to want a music pupil to follow the teachings of someone who has never in his life presented himself at a concert? I am not defending the case of the professor who works half time at the university and half time outside. That’s not good. He is more at one and less at the other. But if he goes outside and it doesn’t work out, he comes back with an increase in knowledge. In the United States, you cannot charge less than so much an hour, so as not to demoralize the university.

You have manifested yourself contrary to the expression “unlimited funds”. Why?
I hate this term. If you give money for the university to do research, for the public good, it cannot be with unlimited funds. It’s an investment. In the United States, any government agency that has a contract with a large company has to set aside, I think it is 2% or 2.5% of its budget, for micro and small businesses. If Nasa contracts a large company to make a space shuttle, it has to arrange for contracts with small companies for 2.5% of the cost of that vehicle. It’s not financing, it’s a development contract. And it’s not money being given, results have to be shown. This goes for universities, and it goes for companies.