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Hidden talents

Chemist suggests additional support for potential entrepreneurs

NanoxFrom 1999 to 2002, during his undergraduate studies in chemistry at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), Gustavo Simões, now 32, used to tell his classmates that he wanted to be an entrepreneur.
Public university courses did not promote entrepreneurship back then (and still don’t), so his peers thought he was out of his mind.

“Almost everyone wanted safer professional options than starting their own business,” he remembers. “There was no support, so becoming an entrepreneur seemed very difficult and far-off.”

Simões refused to give up his plan. He began his graduate studies advised by Elson Longo at the Chemistry Institute of the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp) in the city of Araraquara. In 2005, in the middle of his master’s program, Simões finally decided to go ahead and start his own company.

“Elson Longo’s laboratory was different, it had a lot of contact with companies, and the opportunity to develop new products emerged as a matter of course,” he says.

Simões teamed up with two other chemists, Daniel Minozzi and André Araújo, to found the new company, Nanox, based in the city of São Carlos, in the state of São Paulo. Since 2005, they have been producing materials containing silver particles that are able to eliminate fungi and bacteria.

“Our first financial support was through one of FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Businesses Programs (Pipe),” Simões says. 
“At age 24, I was one of the youngest coordinators of a Pipe project.” He went on to receive funding from the federal government and from a venture capital firm specializing in technology-based companies.

He says that Nanox is growing — it currently has 10 employees — and plans to open a branch office in the United States before the end of 2013.

In 10 years, however, little has changed for undergraduate students who want to set up their own businesses. Entrepreneurship classes are still rare at Brazil’s public universities — one of the few to be found is the class offered by the undergraduate-level engineering program at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli/USP).

“The environment has improved, and access to venture capital has gotten easier, but initiatives to support entrepreneurship are still nothing but whispers in the academic environment,” observes Simões, who finished his PhD in 2009, with Elson Longo still as his advisor.

He believes that things could be different if university programs  focused not only on science and technology research, but also on stimulating innovation for businesses. “To be an entrepreneur,” he says, “you need support, opportunity and the means to take chances. Without these things, starting a business is either a sign of madness or desperation.”