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Change of habit

Researchers have to adjust to the dynamics and the demands of the market when they transition from the academic to the corporate environment

André DucciIn mid-2011, computational engineer Renato Cerqueira decided to take some leave from his job as a professor at the Informatics Department of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ) to help set up IBM’s first research laboratory in Brazil and learn about the company’s research system. The experience landed him a job offer. At age 45, and with a strong academic career, Cerqueira saw the experience as an opportunity to conduct scientific research at a major technology company. He accepted the offer without thinking twice and resigned from his job as a professor and coordinator of the Distributed Systems Engineering Unit of the Graphic Computation Technology Group (TECGRAF) at the university.

Cerqueira is just one of the many Brazilian researchers who left universities or public research centers to work on research, development and innovation activities (RD&I) in private companies. Like most of those who opt for the change, he was guided by the desire to turn his knowledge into a process or product that could be made available to society more quickly and effectively. “The potential for applying outcomes of research performed in companies is much greater than for research conducted in universities, and that’s what made me decide to leave academia,” he says. Compensation can be a decisive factor when deciding to leave the academic environment and work in a company, he notes. “The general perception is that the private sector pays better, but it depends on the university, the individual’s position, and what the company where the researcher goes to work will offer,” he says.

In recent years, as the competitiveness of companies gradually came to be measured from the standpoint of innovation and investment in RD&I, some companies have intensified their search for more qualified professionals with extensive scientific experience. This effort in RD&I by companies in Brazil, although still minor compared to other countries, is reflected in the researcher absorption index.

In 2010, out of a total of 234,797 Brazilian researchers, 41,317 were working on RD&I activities in companies in Brazil according to the latest report by the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications (MCTIC), with data from Technology Innovation Research (PINTEC) of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). In São Paulo, companies employed 53% of the 63,000 researchers in São Paulo State in 2008, which is when the figure surpassed the number in the academic environment for the first time, according to data from the latest edition of the FAPESP Science, Technology & Innovation Indicators in the state of São Paulo. In 2014, the most recent PINTEC report found that about 94,000 researchers were working on RD&I activities in companies in Brazil.

The transition from university to private sector can be challenging because it involves a process of adjusting to the dynamics and demands of the corporate world. In general, research performed at universities is usually dictated by a researcher’s interest in a given topic, with the requirement of writing robust and convincing research proposals that can obtain the resources necessary to implement the research. “Researchers in industry are likely to have less freedom in choosing the research topic. But they do not have to worry about having resources allocated to their projects,” says neuroscientist Luiz Eugênio Mello, vice-president of the Brazilian Association for Research and Development of Innovative Companies (ANPEI) and executive manager of Innovation and Technology at Brazilian company Vale.

It is important for researchers to keep the company’s business model in mind when they prepare a research project. The objective of universities is to generate new knowledge, but the goal of a company is first and foremost to turn a profit, and knowledge is the basis. “Projects carried out by researchers need to be strategically aligned with the specific features of the market segment in which the company operates,” says systems analyst Bruno Bragazza, manager of Innovation, Intellectual Property and New Business at Bosch for Latin America. In this regard, he explains, the outcomes of basic research are usually less tangible, and therefore companies perform less of it in their RD&I activities, since its purpose is not to obtain an immediate return.

André DucciMarket vision
In many cases, researchers in companies work on projects that have large teams. For example, IBM has about 3,000 researchers scattered over 12 laboratories throughout the world. “This is a challenge similar to the one that universities face, especially for newcomers, who must join a network of researchers and identify possible links for collaboration,” Cerqueira says. Soon after he joined the IBM laboratory, he became manager of the Solutions for Natural Resources Unit, which works on projects to improve the efficiency of processes and enhance the interpretation of data from oil and gas, mining and agricultural companies. Today he coordinates a team of 50 researchers in Rio de Janeiro.

Given these challenges, it is important for researchers to have a broad vision of their own research. “The company will offer working conditions so that researchers are able to implement their projects. In exchange, a sustainable research agenda will be required, with specific strategies to develop, produce and sell new goods, processes and services,” Cerqueira says. According to biologist Marcos Valadares, there is no room for error due to lack of planning in companies. “Elaborate plans are laid out for research in industry,” he explains.

Valadares is a partner-founder of Pluricell Biotech, a startup that produces and sells induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS), which are mature cells that can be reprogrammed to be able to once again generate different tissues in an organism (see Pesquisa FAPESP No. 240). According to Valadares, one of the main difficulties researchers face in deciding whether to work in the private sector or open their own firms is the lack of a business and administrative vision. “It takes some time to learn to understand and communicate with the market and develop a sustainable business plan,” he says. “There is a transition phase when an individual stops thinking strictly along academic lines and begins to think in a way that focuses more on the market.”

In companies, the quality of a researcher’s work is not judged by the number of papers published or citations obtained–two criteria that are used in universities. “The impact of research in industry is measured by the benefits it generates in the company’s own business activity or that of its clients,” Bragazza explains. Another difference is that, unlike researchers in universities and public research centers, researchers in private firms are not required to teach or serve as advisors to students. However, they do submit research projects to the directors in charge, who discuss and review them to decide if they are viable and the amount that should be invested in them. For a research project, the recommendation for researchers is to submit a concise and consistent review of the literature on the subject, with objectives and methodologies that are consistent with the hypothesis they intend to test (see Pesquisa FAPESP No. 254).

In companies, projects must be based on a market approach that justifies the investment. “The innovativeness of the research must be demonstrated, strengthening the impact that its results may have,” according to physicist Kesley Moraes de Oliveira, R&D manager of the Pharmachemical Division of Cristália, a pharmaceutical company with headquarters in Itapira, São Paulo State. Cristália hired Oliveira in 2002 while she was still working on her PhD at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) Chemistry Institute.

André DucciInnovation management
The protection of results of scientific research for economic purposes is always a concern as well. “The culture of managing innovation through intellectual property is deeply rooted in companies,” Oliveira explains. “Researchers must always ensure that they are not infringing on the rights of other companies in a process or technology, and they must remember to check that the results of their projects meet basic patent application requirements.”

For this reason, many companies set up dedicated teams for patent issues. According to Luiz Mello of ANPEI, this has been an incentive for universities to also invest in strategies to foster a culture of intellectual property among their students, professors and researchers, and they advise them on the requirements for patenting a product or process (see Pesquisa FAPESP No. 252).

The culture of intellectual property has always been at the forefront of Bosch projects. For all of their research centers in the world combined, Bosch filed an average of 22 patent applications per day in 2016. Like Cristália, Bosch has a dedicated department for advising researchers on what may or may not be protected, how to conduct research for prior art, as well as other guidance.

Specialists also reinforce the importance of industry partnerships with universities and public research centers to generate new financing opportunities for basic research, encourage industries to hire more researchers, and stimulate technology transfer. According to Mello, ANPEI tries to bring companies and universities closer together, mainly through technology innovation centers, and they produce a favorable environment for sharing experiences. However, he stresses that “cooperation with universities is no substitute for what businesses must do to carry out their own R&D activity in an environment that helps bring about innovation.”