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Boosting partnerships

Unicamp Agency gets into the field of transferring the technology produced at the university

EDUARDO CESARThe process of fermentation of sugarcane juice is accelerated with yeast created in the laboratoryEDUARDO CESAR

Good ideas are essential. But forgotten in the drawers, they render neither dividends nor comfort, especially in the specific case of those that result in technological gains and could be added to products and services for the consumer market. In the fight against this stagnation, the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) has decided to act in an even more nimble way in the commercialization of the 297 patents that it owns as the result of the work of its researchers. In order to deal with this, the university hired an experienced professional in the area, Rosana Ceron Di Giorgio, who has taken over the position of director of Unicamps’s Intellectual Property Agency on Innovation (Inova in the Portuguese acronym). Her forecast goal is to license out ten patents per year. This is an arduous task if one takes into consideration that during the almost ten year of existence of the university’s Patents Office only six patents have been licensed to entrepreneurial groups and they have already brought in an income of more than R$ 600,000 since 1996 for the university.

Hopeful by the prospects of the work that has been facing her, Rosana, since her arrival on the campus at the end of last year, has selected 70 from among the nearly 300 patents that she believes could well be more quickly placed at the disposal of parties interested in teaming up with the university. Three of them, according to the director of Intellectual Property of Inova, have negotiations well under way. “I believe that soon we will be signing our first contract of this new stage of the agency, which is now acting more aggressively as it is going to the marketplace to offer what it has in its portfolio”, she says. Rosana reveals that the product that should arrive on the shelves, thanks to a laboratory supporting its manufacturing, will be capsules based on isoflavones from the soybean, capable of offering to the organism a better absorption of their benefits when combating free radicals. The research patent that resulted in this discovery was registered thanks to the work of Yong Kun Park, from the Biochemical and Food Laboratory, of the Food Engineering College (FEA).

Park has been researching the isoflavones of Soya bean since 1998. He says that just over three years ago close to twenty American companies have been producing derivatives of the soybean for food because of its proven activity of reducing and controlling cholesterol and high blood pressure. According to the researcher, Brazil has ideal conditions to produce large varieties of food derivatives of soybean, since it controls almost 17% of the world production of this legume. The contract for the transfer of technology is ready to be turned into a reality.

Low calorific value
On the same line, with three food companies looking into the proposal, Rosana is wagering on a quick negotiation for one of the patents registered by Hilary de Menezes, also from the FEA. Starting from research with a combination of cassava and the Brazil nut, the team, coordinated by the researcher, obtained a type of morning cereal of high protein value and low calorific value, as they eliminated the excess of fat present in the nut. “We have very good chances as this patent is practically ready, independent from other experiments for its immediate application”, Rosana explains.

A further potential contact involves one of the largest distributors of plastics in the country, which has shown itself to be excited with the possibility of obtaining a biodegradable plastic based on starch and jelly, with advantages in relation to equivalent plastics available on the market, thanks to the low cost of the raw material, as well as the priceless advantage in terms of social marketing as it offers to the market a product made of material that is highly recyclable. The objective would be to apply this technology in the segment of packaging and one-way derivatives such as dishes, glasses, cutlery, document folders and even vases for flowers. Leonard Mensanh Sebio from FEA, who is studying for his doctorate degree, arrived at the patent by way of the development of a project to produce a biodegradable plastic based on starch, gelatine, glycerol and water via the industrial process of extrusion, while carrying out research at the side of his supervisor, Yoon Kil Chang.

Sebio says that he spent four years in the development of the process. “The most complex stages were the technological simulation, the adjusting of the operational parameters and the formula mix of the product so as to obtain one that is similar to plastic, but totally biodegradable”, he says. “The evident advantage is that it is environment friendly, as it is totally biodegradable and could become a ration for cattle and fish in the case of it is thrown into rivers and lakes since it can be metabolized in the food chain of the organism of any living being, or used as a fertilizer in landfills or in compost”, he explains. The material could substitute synthetic plastics, or paper and cardboard, in the manufacture of one-way products.

At the time of the launch of Inova, in June of last year, the agency received the mission of having an outstanding program in the area of intellectual property. As well as widening the capability of the institution to register intellectual property, the agency will work to speed up the licensing of patents. “Without this, the patent is just a cost and does not produce income”, emphazises Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the Unicamp rector, during the launch of the agency. More than simply publicizing the of intellectual property born in the campus, the agency’s ambition is to identify, develop, construct and support initiatives that link the university’s research and teaching to outside interests.

Even before the current drive –which is much more aggressive than the one in the previous year, Unicamp had already been looking after the preservation and valuation of the discoveries by its intellectual minds. An open defender of the commercialization of patents, Fernando Galembeck, from Unicamp’s Chemical Institute – he took part in five deals with the multinationals Serrana, from the Bunge group, and Rhodia-Ster –, advocates that the public university must administer its patrimony with zeal. “Patents are part of this patrimony”, he simplifies on reflecting why, since 1978 when he carried out the registration of his first patent, he has always been an enthusiast of the initiative. Of the patents shared with the market, three cover different aspects of the world of dye pigments. Two of them received an award from the Brazilian Association of Dye Manufacturers and the International Conference on Surface and Colloid Science, in France. The other group of patents revolve around nano-compounds and some are already on their way forward.

The underlying concept of the pigments concept is that that dyes must cover the surfaces over which they are applied and, so that this can occur, they must throw back  to the environment the light that falls on them. Technically this is called “coverage power”, or “the retro-reflection of light”, Galembeck explains.  A material retro-reflects light efficiently when it contains structures with two characteristics: the dimensions of these structures must be approximately half a micrometer (1 micrometer is 1 thousandth of a millimetre), or that is to say, they must have a dimension approximately equal to the length of a light wave. Furthermore, the rate of refraction of these structures must be different from the rate of refraction of the medium in which they are dispersed. In order to meet these two conditions, normally particles of titanium dioxide are dispersed in the resin which forms the dye, because this material is the white substance with the highest refractive index that exists.

In the research developed, the Galembeck that it is the possible to retro-reflect the light using small bubbles, as one can see in any glass of beer. “The beer is yellow, but the foam is white, that is, it returns to the environment light of all the colors that fall on it. This is the basic idea of these patents: to introduce particles that contain bubbles of air, with dimensions of hundreds of nanometres (micrometers), by using aluminum polyphosphate, the raw material of the new pigment”, he explains.

This characteristic was perceived during the test work of Pompeu Pereira de Abreu Filho, Emília Celma de Oliveira Lima and Marisa Massumi Beppu, under the supervision of Galembeck. They discovered that the polyphosphates formed solid foam, that is, they expanded on being heated, capturing within bubbles of air. By heating this chemical substance it is also possible to obtain micro-foams. Finally, they realized that these micro-foams are formed even without warming, when a film of latex that contains particles of aluminum polyphosphate is allowed to dry. The innovation from the laboratory ended up on the industrial production line reducing costs by 10% to 15% as it substituted titanium dioxide, a product that is mostly imported.

In the case of applications related to nanotechnology and that govern the other line of patents belonging to Galembeck, the one which has been most highlighted is the one dedicated to nanostructured materials, or nanocompounds. According to what he says, a special case in this segment is that of the nano-compounds made from plastics and rubbers with clays. “In order to obtain one, the clay particles must be separated, reducing them to plaques of nanometre width, spread within a plastic or rubber, and then afterwards the plaques are steered, laying them parallel though separated. The result is that nano-compound shows properties that are very different from those of the original polymer”, he informs. “The permeability to gases is very much lower; therefore it could be used in packaging that better protects the content than that of a simple plastic. The resistance of the nano-compound to impacts and mechanical treatments is much superior to plastic and also it behaves better at high temperatures”, he adds. The results of these discoveries became patents, shared with the company Rhodia-Ster. They deal with obtaining nano-compounds of polyethylene Terephthalate (PET); a very common plastic used in soft drinks and mineral water bottles, known as PET. “The path used was totally new, showing that it is possible that we can compete successfully with powerful groups”, Galembeck celebrates.

Teamed up with the company ‘Genesearch Fomento para Pesquisa’ (Genesearch  Research Fostering) – which attracts venture capital investors for projects in innovative technology – the research by Anderson Ferreira da Cunha for his doctorate degree, supervised by Gonçalo Amarante Guimarães Pereira, from the Genomic and Expression Laboratory of the Biology Institute, perfects a patent that will benefit the process of the manufacture of alcohol. This is molecular biology at the service of the distillers, speeding up the fermentation process of the juice from the sugarcane. “We chose the most common model at universities abroad, in which partners are sought to financially support the project, well before it becomes industrially viable”, Pereira says.

One of the forms of a reduction of carbon monoxide car emissions demanded by the Kyoto Protocol gives Brazil the perspective of demand growth for alcohol fuel as an alternative to petrol. Technologies that speed up the performance of the current production in the sugar/alcohol sector have become more relevant. The distilleries believe that they could become worldwide suppliers of alcohol fuel and of modern technologies for building distilleries in other countries. Efficiency gains are preponderant factors for competitiveness in world markets. The invention created at Unicamp allows for an acceleration of the industrial process, eliminating one of the stages, the centrifuging of material after fermentation.

Centrifugation is the fastest way currently used by the distilleries for the separation of the fruit liquor and the solid material, the yeast. By the conventional process in use today, on average eight hours are spent. The yeast created in the laboratory manages to reduce this time to only two hours.

In the sugarcane industry, the generation of alcohol is carried out by way of a huge tank, which is reserved for the yeasts responsible for the fermentation of sugar into ethanol, into which the sugarcane juice is mixed. When this process is completed, the mixture passes through centrifuges in order to separate the yeasts from the fermented juice that goes on to the distillation columns. “The passage through these centrifuges, the most expensive part of this process, could well be eliminated”, Pereira clarifies. “In order to obtain this result, we got hold of a gene that, while working in the cell, makes it coagulate . We placed this gene under the effect of a fragment of DNA that makes it sensitive to the presence of sugar. In this situation, the yeast modified with the inclusion of the flocculating gene (agglutination) under the control of a promoter, makes only the yeast agglutinate after the removal of the sugar”, he adds. The laboratory proof, which resulted in the patent, is now going through research improvement in order to make the process work on industrial yeasts.

To boost the commercialization of patents demanded professionalism in the area of intellectual property. Not only choosing those who demonstrate the conditions of attracting interested parties, but also in the preparation of those who go into the field to present the new ideas. “We have a multidisciplinary team made up of eight outsourced professionals, who have already worked with the seventy patents selected for the current phase, and who go out into the field looking to attract investors” states the director of Inova.

The majority of the patents registered by Unicamp refer to the area of chemistry, close to 50%. Foods and pharmaceutical products come next. In order to add value to this world in terms of negotiation, Rosana took as her reference the time of the existence of the patent, considering that its registration stands for some twenty years and taking into consideration that it is not always possible to recover all of the investments in research carried out in the past, a practice common in large groups of companies. “In the royalties contracts we operate with a percentage of income. Depending on the level of the patent, this rate can oscillate between 3% and 10% upon the sales that the company will come to have through the commercialization of the product, for a time span of up to fifteen years of exclusivity.”, she informs. If we effectively manage to license ten patents per year, the Inova will fatten up the Unicamp bank balance in order to foster other research.