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Entrepreneurs in the making

Expert in business incubators points the way for new entrepreneurs in technology

Daniel BuenoAt a recent lecture at the University of São Paulo Institute of Biomedical Sciences (ICB/USP), Sergio Risola, manager of the Innovation, Entrepreneurialism, and Technology Center (Cietec), located at USP’s main campus, asked the audience of undergraduate and graduate students whether any of them would like to have their own company. “Much to my surprise, and to the surprise of everyone else at the table, more than half of the nearly 250 students answered ‘yes’ to my question,” says Risola. In his opinion, this shows that universities and professors should pay greater attention to training their students to become entrepreneurs. As head of the business incubator, Risola has a wealth of experience receiving prospective entrepreneurs who want to develop technology and engage in innovation. Over the past 15 years, Cietec has seen more than 500 companies pass through its halls; 130 of these have left the incubator behind and are able to stand on their own two feet, with a survival rate that exceeds 90%.

“About one-third of the companies incubated at Cietec are owned by people who came from academe – who hold a master’s, doctorate, or post-doctorate degree and have spent time at Science and Technology Centers (STCs),” Risola observes. “They start out as people who have ideas but no company.” Incubators afford an optimal environment for these novices; in addition to being able to take advantage of a vibrant network of contacts among the start-ups, entrepreneurs, and investors who frequent the institutions, they have access to free consulting services and office space at a cost well below the market. As a first step, Cietec and similar institutions ask interested parties to draw up a business plan that lays out a proposal and its timeline; it should also state whether intellectual property will be involved and explain what the proponent understands by ‘innovation’ and whether this innovation will be incremental or radical – in the former case, incorporating new knowledge into a product, process, or system or, in the latter, something unprecedented. “We want to know what’s behind their need for further knowledge,” Risola says. In the case of candidate entrepreneurs who are leaving the academic environment, it is necessary to supplement knowledge attained at universities or STCs in Brazil or abroad.

CIETECWhen future entrepreneurs apply to Cietec, they first go through a 40-hour course that helps them decide whether they really want to take this route. “We ask candidates to reprogram their professional lives, and we also show them what they will be up against. Many of them give up or realize that they aren’t ready, and they come back later,” says Risola, who is also a professor at the course in entrepreneurialism and new businesses at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in São Paulo.

Citing the personal traits that are essential for a new entrepreneur, Risola says it makes sense to be good at putting together teams and knowing how to lead and to delegate; to be persistent; to not be afraid of making mistakes; and to not give up in the face of an adversity. However, the key trait – still according to Risola – is dedication and passion about making a business successful. Risola also stresses the importance of choosing the right partners. Clashes between business partners account for nearly 5% of failed ventures at the incubator, and the figure would be higher if managers did not appropriately intervene when misunderstandings arise between partners. In Risola’s opinion, it is important to make a wise choice because nobody achieves success alone; additionally, a variety of tasks are involved in running a company and they all demand time commitments.