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Electrical engineering

Genius innovations

Private technology institute generates products, seeks independence, and starts to set up a branch in Campinas

November 2000 saw the start of the activities of the Genius Institute of Technology, in Manaus (AM). It is a private body, conceived one year before that, aiming to generate technological innovations in the areas of electronic equipment, telecommunications and multimedia. In a short time, it has accumulated a series of conquests, with the creation of a new type of karaoke that uses an unprecedented way of assessing the performance of the user, a set of solutions for voice recognition in Portuguese, as well as various software and electronic circuits for mobile telephony and DVD and digital TV equipment. They are results achieved in an experience that is unique in Brazil. In a couple of years, the institute has been capable of attracting 90 researchers from 14 Brazilian states and from seven countries. There are 13 doctors, 65 with a master’s degree awarded or studying for one, and 12 graduates.

A gathering of competencies that wants to be in the front line of technological development in the areas that the institute has embraced. Now, with its model for work consolidated, Genius wants to become increasingly independent of Gradiente, the company that created it, and is expanding its bases. “We are in search of an area in Campinas (SP) to set up our first branch”, announces Bruno Vianna, Genius’s director-superintendent. The institute was created by Gradiente’s owner, businessman Eugênio Staub, with R$ 75 million in funds that came from the Information Technology Law, at the time that the company had a contract with the Finnish company Nokia to make cell phones in the Manaus Industrial Park.

Today, Gradiente no longer makes cell phones and has no more rights to the corresponding incentives of the Information Technology Law, so that it is treated like any other company by Genius. The institute is modifying a remaining link with the founder, which has a majority interest in the company’s capital and on its board. “The present one is made up of five Gradiente employees. We are in a process of change, so that there will just be a minority interest”, Vianna explains. The chairman of the board will also be independent of the company. As it no longer has any on-going source of finance, Genius needs to maintain itself with income from projects and from product licenses, to sustain its annual budget of R$ 40 million for 2003.

“Our annual income is made up of funds for projects approved by the Telecommunications Technological Development Fund (Funttel) and by the Information Technology Sectorial Fund (CT-Info) and, in particular, by contracts with companies for licensing or for developing new products or solutions.” The biggest customer still is Gradiente, which at the beginning of next year should launch the first DVD player with totally Brazilian technology. Up until now, the company, like the others, imports kits and assembles the devices in Manaus. Now, it is going to stop buying these kits and start negotiating the components, like chips and other supplies, with the international suppliers.

“To arrive at this point, researchers from Genius have developed the software for the devices; part of the technology was absorbed from South Korea, where the group spent three months. We mastered the technology, and, today, we are talking with American companies that are looking to us for other developments”, explains Alexandre Lisboa, a manager of the business unit. The first innovation by Genius was the automatic assessor for karaoke apparatuses, which gives marks according to the person’s being in tune, loudness and rhythm, in a way that is well ahead of others in the market. “We put into the apparatus’s software algorithms for parameters of these characteristics”, says Vianna. Licensed to Gradiente, which is calling it DVD Okê, the new system attracted the attention of five companies from Japan and Singapore that have now begun negotiations with the institute. To make a complete prototype, Genius owns prototyping machinery to produce the outer casings of the electronic apparatuses.

With the DVD player and the karaoke on the market, although it is premature to claim that there is an industrial recovery, there is a return to a path interrupted with the import of electronic equipment at the beginning of the 90’s. It was a period in which the Brazilian companies that were developing electronic appliances (TV, audio, etc.), like Gradiente and Sharp, for example, had to reduce or to eliminate their research and development teams and start importing products under license, because they did not have the economic conditions and the techniques to compete with imported products.

The times are certainly different, and nowadays from 80% to 85% of a project for electronic equipment goes on the development of the chip. That is why Genius has eight people trained in chip design. This way, the institute gains competitiveness and places itself in the global marketing such a way that it now attracts multinationals. One of Genius’s major areas of business is cell phones. “We are developing for Siemens a family of equipment that is three generations ahead of what is being marketed in Brazil. It involves an operating system with unprecedented interfaces and applications with GSM technology (which stands for Global System for Mobile Communications) that the company is going to launch at the end of 2004”, explains Vianna, who went to negotiate the contract in the company’s headquarters in Germany. “It is a world-wide contract, and Siemens has already asked for it to be expanded.”

Besides Gradiente and Siemens, other large companies have now availed themselves of the knowledge generated by Genius. The area of voice recognition in Portuguese is one of those that have called most attention. The development of this system has gathered together 30 persons at the institute and is the group with the largest number of researchers. It is made up of engineers and linguists who have recorded the speech Brazilians from 250 cities, capturing ways of speaking that total over a thousand voice samples. All this material is being processed and put into software. Voice recognition may be used in remote controls, a voice portal on the Internet, service centers and air conditioning apparatuses.

One of the companies to use voice recognition experimentally was Deca, a manufacturer of bathroom metals and fixtures. They used this system to display in an experimental manner, at the International Fair of the Construction Industry (Feicon), held in São Paulo in April, an intelligent bathroom that answers commands to switch the light on and off, as well as switching the shower on and opening the faucets. At the 2002 Automobile Saloon, General Motors showed a Vectra model adapted to receiving spoken instructions. Functions like locking doors, switching on the headlights, switching on the radio, the left or right indicator, were carried out with spoken commands. In this experiment, the installation of the system in the car was handled by professors and students from the Faculty of Industrial Engineering (FEI), in São Bernardo do Campo (SP).

Partnerships with universities and other research institutes are a priority for Genius. “It is one of our goals to facilitate the drawing together of the knowledge generated in the universities with the private sector. We therefore inject into the academic environment real problems from the market that can prompt new research”, explains Marcel Bergmann, one of the leaders of the project and responsible for institutional relations at Genius. Setting up the branch at Campinas is linked to the collaboration with universities and research institutes, besides being closer to many companies too. “We want to increase our interaction with universities”, says Vianna.

This approach originally began with the Federal University of Amazonas (Ufam). Many professionals coming from this university were hired, although there was a lack of courses for Genius’s researchers from other cities to be able to carry on their studies, as was the case of dozens of people coming from São Paulo, Bahia, Minas Gerais, Paraná, Rio Grande Sul and Paraíba. “There wasn’t any course in information technology for a master’s degree in the whole of the northern region”, says Vianna. “So then we proposed the creation of this course at Ufam, where some doctors who work at Genius give lessons and supervise theses”, Bergerman says.

Forming the team
Genius’s human resources are a separate chapter. Taking to humid, hot and distant Manaus doctors, masters and graduates from other parts of the country, concentrated in the southern and southeastern regions, could have been a difficulty, but it wasn’t. The challenge of carrying out research and development in an innovative way weighed heavily in the decisions of those invited. Only 30% of the members of Genius’s staff are from Manaus, and, even so, a large portion is established in the administrative area.

Amongst the locals from Manaus are physicist Fábio Santos, a Ufam graduate; Agemilson Pimentel, who did electrical engineering at the Amazonas State University (UEA); and Jacqueline Aguiar, a recent graduate from the Law course at Ufam. Santos, another recent graduate, who works in the area of applications for cell phones, says that working at Genius is a unique opportunity for doing technological research in Manaus. For Pimentel, it was a change of course within the same area. He used to work in the Sony factory in Manaus and accepted the challenge of the new proposal. As a lawyer, Jacqueline says that the industrial park, where Genius is installed, does not offer any great attraction. Family and friends were even surprised that she had accepted working at Genius, instead of a job with the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the State. “I enjoyed working in a non-profit organization.”

Among those who regard the heat as the greatest obstacle are those who came from the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP). Daniel Gustavo is one of them. Born in São Paulo, aged 29, he worked in two telecommunications companies in São Paulo. “But I always thought of working with the development of products.” When the opportunity arose, he had no doubts: he brought his wife, who works in the institute’s administrative area.

In command of Genius there is a native of Minas brought up in São Paulo. Vianna is an electronic engineer with a graduate’s and master’s degree from Poly-USP, besides a doctorate from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and a Master in Business Administration (MBA) from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV). He was a researcher and a manager at the Telecommunications Research and Development Center (CPqD) in Campinas, formerly a research center of the public sector Telebras company that became independent.

He participates as an inventor in three patents of the CPqD in the tropical system, the Digital Telephone Center, which is present in the whole of the country. With the privatization of telecommunications, Vianna was a director of operations for Vesper and for Telemar. “I have always sought technological innovation, and now I have the opportunity for leading this team, which surprises me every day, working with a high technological content.”

New lights for digital TV

The digital TV issue is also present in the offices at Genius. The institute was invited by Minister of Communications Miro Teixeira, together with the Telecommunications Research and Development Center (CPqD) to carry out new research into a new system for digital TV (DTV), and to build a bridge between academic solutions and industry. “We support technology for system with Brazilian characteristics, and we have it”, says Bruno Vianna, Genius’s director-superintendent. “However, you have to know what part of the system is worthwhile developing here.”

Digital TV is in actually a set of standards that each international group – the first, of the United States, Canada and Korea, the second, Europe, and the third, Japan – has configured in accordance with its needs. “More than half the royalties involved in these systems come from the middleware, a sort of operating system that commands the DTV”, comments Marcel Bergerman, Genius’s project leader. “We have an experienced team working in several technologies that are present in TVD”, he says.

The digital system via open TV, which is present in 90% of Brazilian households, unlike the majority of the other countries, where cable TV predominates, is going to make possible a greater interactivity, with access to the Internet and to an infinity of databases. For those who will not be able to bear the costs of a TVD set, the researchers say that it is possible to develop a very cheap converter that will cost one quarter of the one adopted in other countries.

Besides Genius and the CPqD, several entities will be taking part in the government’s DTV project, including a consortium made up of the following universities: Mackenzie, USP, Unicamp, São Paulo, PUC Rio de Janeiro, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Federal University of Paraíba and the National Telecommunications Institute. The funds, R$ 78.1 million, will come out of the Telecommunications Technological Development Fund (Funttel).