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Change of Course

Daniel BuenoBorn in Araraquara, in the interior of São Paulo State, Gustavo Henrique Frigieri Vilela, 35, was the first in his family to attend college. When it came time to choose a career, he wavered between pharmacy and computer science. After being approved in both subjects, he opted to study pharmacy at São Paulo State University (Unesp) in Araraquara. During his undergraduate years, aided by a grant from FAPESP, he began scientific research in molecular biology. “When I graduated, I decided to enter the job market,” he recalls. Initially he worked at a hospital as a clinical analyst, then later for a chain of pharmacies in São Carlos, a city near Araraquara. After being out of the academic world for four and a half years, a phone call changed his fate. On the line was Sérgio Mascarenhas, of the São Carlos Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo (USP). He had a cold and was looking for some medicine that could boost his immunity. The conversation went on for more than an hour. At the end, Vilela was invited to visit USP, which resulted in an invitation to do graduate work with Mascarenhas as his advisor. The objective was to develop equipment for minimally invasive monitoring of intracranial pressure, using a sensor placed directly under the skin of the patient’s scalp. “I wanted to get a PhD in my field, biologicals, but Mascarenhas told me it would be much better if I got it in physics, and he gave me a big stack of books to read,” says Vilela. Approved for master’s degree studies, which he began in 2007, after one semester Vilela asked to make a change and pursue his PhD directly. During those studies he was supported by FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (PIPE) and defended his dissertation in 2010. “By dividing my time between USP and Sapra Assessoria, a company associated with the project, I began to have contacts with the business world,” he says. In January 2011, he entered the post-doctoral program, with Yvonne Mascarenhas as advisor, and started working on developing a non-invasive sensor that would be placed on the patient’s hair. “During that phase, two of the PIPE projects of which I was coordinator were approved, and we established Braincare, a spin-off of Sapra,” he says. He now divides his time between a research group at Braincare, in which more than 50 people are participating, including researchers from Brazil and partners from Portugal and England, and the bureaucratic part of the company, which involves patents, regulations, and sensor manufacturing.