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From the academy to the company

A proposal to turn researchers into businessmen

Thanks to the support for academic research, for which FAPESP stands out, Brazil’s participation in scientific production has been growing. Its technological production has been far from keeping pace with this progress: few companies base their business on locally developed technologies. While the developed countries’ governments concentrate the major part of their funds on hiring development in companies, with a view their technological advancement, in Brazil, the market is expected to solve everything by itself. The transfer of knowledge from the academic world to the business world is also rudimentary.

Embraer’s success is the exception that proves the rule; its original technology was hired by the government and had the support of a public institution of teaching and research that was practically created for this purpose. With regard to contracting development in companies, FAPESP has taken the first step, with its Program of Technological Innovation in Small Companies. What could be done for transferring academic knowledge to a company?  One of the most efficient mechanisms rarely happens in Brazil, when the researcher himself “entrepreneurs” this transfer.  The lack of venture capital is a factor, but perhaps the main inhibiting factor is the difference between the public and private sector pension funds, which increases the personal risk.

In the state of São Paulo, the problem could be solved if there were collaboration between FAPESP and the universities (and/or the research institutes). The latter should create the possibility of a special sabbatical leave for researchers wishing to set up their own companies, using the results of their research. This sabbatical leave would be for an initial period of one year, renewable twice, at the most. The company would have as its shareholders the researcher himself, who would contribute with his work, initiative and knowledge; the university, in exchange for remunerating the researcher during the sabbatical leave period and for any use of laboratories; and FAPESP, in exchange for transforming the basic knowledge into products, plus, in some cases, venture capitalists.  One of the criteria for renewal would be to evidence the company’s viability.  When the maximum period is over, the researcher would have the option of resigning from the university, or of relinquishing the management of the company.

In addition to the obvious benefits for society as a whole, the university would gain much from the program. By interacting with the company, with even a place on the board of directors, other lecturers would come to have a greater knowledge of business life, bringing to the university knowledge that will assist it, in its mission of forming human resources. It will be natural for students to participate with attachments, collaborating with their formation. These advantages far exceed the risk of the university losing talent. In fact, this is not relevant. Even if the program were extremely successful, few researchers would actually be involved: the majority of university research is not appropriate for generating companies; few researchers have a vocation for business and will be willing to run the risks, and, last, this sabbatical leave should only be granted in cases where there is also an interest on the part of the university.

Finally, one should not underestimate the fact that the program could become a good business. If there had been one when AsGa was created, Unicamp would be reaping good profits.

José Ellis Ripper Filho, formerly professor at Unicamp’s Institute of Physics, is director – president of AsGa Microeletrônica.