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Laws of Attraction

Study shows which factors influence partnerships between universities and companies in Brazil

NELSON PROVAZICooperation among universities, research institutions, and companies is one of the principal pillars in strengthening a country’s innovation systems. Although this idea has been widely propagated through policies that encourage innovation by companies, no analyses had been made of the factors that influence such partnerships in Brazil using concrete data. Now, a study conducted by researchers from the Polytechnic School (Poli/USP) and the University of Campinas (Unicamp) has shown that some characteristics related to academic research quality and size of the research group are determinants in eliciting interactions with companies.

According to the study, groups that are larger and have attained a higher level of academic performance tend to interact with companies situated all over the map, including those in distant regions. In contrast, smaller groups with only a modest academic record work with companies that are more conveniently located. “When companies need more complex and specific solutions, they tend to work with groups that have been shown to be of higher academic caliber, even if their researchers have to travel longer distances,” explains Renato Garcia, a professor from the Institute of Economics at Unicamp and principal author of the study. Results of the research were published in two articles. The first appeared in August 2013 in the journal Innovation and Development. The other was published in the journal Estudos Econômicos [Economics Studies] early in 2014. Garcia believes that although the groups that interact with more distant companies are concentrated in metropolitan areas, the role played by smaller groups cannot be underestimated. “They are able to meet the demands of local companies and cooperate in simpler innovative efforts,” he says.

The partnership between the Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Electrochemistry and Ceramics (LIEC) on the campus of the São Paulo State University (Unesp) in Araraquara, in the interior of São Paulo State, with the National Iron and Steel Company (CSN) in Volta Redonda, Rio de Janeiro State, is emblematic of long-distance cooperation. The two institutions are separated by more than 500 km, but that situation has never gotten in the way of a partnership that is now 25 years old. “The distance is merely geographic, since students or professors from LIEC are visiting us all the time,” reports Sidiney Nascimento Silva, metallurgy process manager at CSN. Affiliated with the Center for Research and Development of Functional Materials, one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC) supported by FAPESP, LIEC has worked with CSN on 42 research projects that are responsible for cost reductions estimated at $28 million. The projects have also resulted in the publication of 49 articles in international scientific journals and 156 articles in Brazilian journals, in addition to 16 patent applications filed in Brazil with 34 patent awards. “LIEC’s experience was a decisive factor in gaining the trust of CSN,” says Elso Longo, coordinator of the LIEC unit at Unesp—the other is installed at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).

The initial contact between Longo’s team and CSN occurred in 1989 when the research group identified and solved a corrosion problem in the ceramic burner of the regenerator in one of the plant’s blast furnaces. The fix extended the useful life of the equipment by three years, giving the company enough time to plan a complete renovation. In recent years, LIEC has been dedicated to developing new products from the wastes left over from steel production. Every ton of steel produced generates 100 kg of slag, a material formed by oxides from the steel refining process. Slag is usually used as crushed stone in the paving of roads, as railroad ballast, and in concrete works. Longo’s group developed a method that increases the amount of residual metal recovered from in the slag and converts it to raw material for use in cement manufacture. The metal recovered in that process is re-used. “This also enabled us to reduce our environmental liability. We are emitting 470,000 fewer tons of CO2 a year because the slag replaces some of the limestone and clinker in cement production,” Silva explains.

The study by Poli-USP and Unicamp shows that although interacting with distant companies, large research groups also have relationships with nearby partners. In general, this happens because they stimulate the establishment or placement of companies in their vicinity. “Companies that operate more frequently on the frontier of knowledge tend to establish themselves near those centers of excellence,” Renato Garcia says. This theory is endorsed by Luiz Gustavo Pagotto Simões, director of Nanox, a LIEC partner company founded in 2005 and situated in São Carlos, less than 40 km from Araraquara. “Being near the university expedites in-person exchanges of information and prevents failures in communication,” says Simões, who was a student of Elso Longo during his master’s and doctoral studies. Before he founded Nanox, the businessman was a researcher at LIEC, which put him in contact with the demands of industry early on. “That experience encouraged me to go into business for myself,” says Simões. The entry of Nanox on the market featured the production of silver-based nanostructured particles that have bactericidal, antimicrobial, and auto-sterilizing properties and were developed under a project supported by FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (PIPE).

In recent years, the same technology has been applied in the manufacture of carpets that resist dust mites and on the surface of metal items such as medical and dental instruments, hair dryers and water purifiers, as well as production of paints, resins, and ceramics. In 2013, the company obtained registration with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U. S. agency that regulates food and drugs, which enabled it to market bactericidal materials for use on plastic food containers used for milk and fruit, thus extending product shelf life. Another company located near LIEC is KosmoScience, situated in the municipality of Valinhos, less than 200 km from Araraquara. Like Nanox, KosmoScience was founded by a researcher who had worked with Longo’s group, chemist Adriano Pinheiro, one of the company’s three partners. Established in 2003 as a spin-off to develop methodologies for use in demonstrating the effectiveness of cosmetics products before they are launched on the market, KosmoScience now has major companies as clients, among them Natura, L’Oreal, Hipermarcas, Unilever, and O Boticário (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 207). Working with the LIEC, the company analyzes the physical and chemical structure of hair in order to produce cosmetics more specific to each type of hair. “This personalizes the treatment of hair,” Longo says.

Some of the research that led to the EMS anti-insomnia drug was conducted at the company’s research and development center in Hortolândia, in the Campinas metropolitan area of São Paulo State

EMS Public domain imageSome of the research that led to the EMS anti-insomnia drug was conducted at the company’s research and development center in Hortolândia, in the Campinas metropolitan area of São Paulo StateEMS Public domain image

Garcia explains that the intensity of the partnerships varies according to the field of knowledge. Groups that work in engineering are the ones that most often establish contacts with industrial companies, at an average rate of 6.7 interactions per group studied. Note that the research considered interactions to be contacts ranging from those occurring in the more complicated projects devoted to new product development to technology transfers and manufacturing processes improvements. In agrarian sciences the rate is 5.6 interactions, while in the life sciences, which include biology and health-related fields in which Brazil has recognized strengths, the rate is lower: two interactions per research group. The study also cites data from the human sciences that exhibited an average of 2.3 interactions per group. This figure is proportionally higher than the number obtained for the life sciences group, but that field reported 125 groups interacting with companies compared with 62 groups for the human sciences.

To arrive at their results, Garcia and his team conducted a survey in 2008 using a questionnaire that was distributed to 612 research group coordinators from all over Brazil. They then evaluated 2004 data from approximately 2,150 groups that were registered with the Board of Research Groups in Brazil (DGP), a kind of census of scientific activity conducted by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). Research groups were classified according to three dimensions: size of the teams, size of the departments, and quality of research. The groups that had the most members (more than 28) presented an average of 8.6 interactions, while the smaller ones (fewer than 21 members) had no more than three interactions, on average. According to an estimate cited in the Innovation and Development article, increasing the number of researchers in a group by 10 can result in more than a 10% increase in the number of partnerships with companies. With respect to the size of the departments into which the groups are incorporated, those with more than 75 members—counting professors, researchers, and staff—also integrate more often with companies than groups affiliated with smaller departments, i.e., those with fewer than 20 members. With regard to research quality, the evaluation criteria used by the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes) were considered. They are based on such factors as the frequency of publication of scientific articles. It was found that groups that were ranked higher, the ones that publish more, exhibited almost double the average number of interactions reported by groups of more modest academic performance.

In another stage of the study, which analyzed the issue of geographic distance, information was obtained from the 2008 census taken by the DGP-CNPq, when 1,462 research groups at 142 universities or research institutions were interacting with companies. Garcia found that the regions of Brazil that exhibited, at the same time, at least 100 interactions by groups and 100 interactions by companies are Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, São Paulo, Florianópolis, Recife, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, and Campinas. The study indicates that 59% of these interactions occurred between companies and research groups situated in municipalities at distances of up to 100 km from each other. Only 24% of interactions occur among research groups and companies that are separated by 800 or more kilometers. Garcia believes this is why moving universities into regions further away from metropolitan centers has only a modest effect in terms of fostering innovation. “The company might actually transfer its manufacturing activity to an interior town or city, but will keep its research laboratory close to regions where research is stronger, like São Paulo, Campinas, and São José dos Campos,” he says.

To economist Eduardo da Motta e Albuquerque, a professor from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and a researcher at the Center for Regional Development and Planning (CEDEPLAR), Garcia’s research uses empirical data to confirm hypotheses that had already been formulated. “There had been a lot of questions about the impact interaction with companies has on the quality of research. Now we know that that quality is a prerequisite for interaction,” he says. The study also shows that research quality and the size of the research groups influence the decisions made by companies that are looking not only for long-term benefits but also for quick solutions to problems associated with the manufacturing process. “This explains why about 40% of the groups we analyzed are involved in engineering, which is where the demands for innovation in industry tend to focus,” Garcia explains. That is why the research project opted to include non-governmental organizations and other institutions such as foundations and hospitals in the group of companies, in order to assess the performance of interactions in the human and life sciences.

The study did not delve into explanations behind the relatively low level of interaction by companies with groups in the life sciences field (biology and health). Eduardo Albuquerque, of the UFMG, thinks there are two possible explanations for this. The first is methodological: the life sciences field probably has more interactions than were captured by the studies since groups often interact not with industrial firms but with the Unified Health System (SUS), hospitals, diagnostic laboratories, etc. Garcia’s research, however, did take into account that broader vision, which includes hospitals and NGOs as partners of the university. Another possibility, Albuquerque observes, is that the low level of spending on research and development in the pharmaceutical and medical equipment fields in Brazil is the main reason for the timid interactions taking place in that area. “Many times the research group interacts directly with the pharmaceutical company, but outside Brazil,” he points out. To economist Marcelo Silva Pinho from UFSCar, the Brazilian pharmaceutical industry is probably an extreme case of the technological dynamic of dependence on innovations developed abroad. According to Pinho, although progress has been made in the past 15 years, the size of the technological effort put forth by the Brazilian companies in that industry is less than 1% of the effort exerted by the world leaders. Pinho is author of a study of the views held by Brazilian companies about their relationship with universities.

“Specific characteristics of the pharmaceutical industry combine to make the competitive dynamic of the sector very selective and to generate an industrial structure that is fairly heavily concentrated on a global scale,” Pinho says. Even so, in recent years some Brazilian laboratories are managing to find their place on the market thanks to the production of generic and similar drugs that make technological demands of Brazilian research groups. “The very process of absorption of external technologies requires the help of universities and research institutions, because the implementation of technology transfers may demand skills that are not always available inside the company,” he says.

The CSN blast furnace in Volta Redonda, state of Rio de Janeiro: steel production waste can be used in cement manufacturing

CSN image bankThe CSN blast furnace in Volta Redonda, state of Rio de Janeiro: steel production waste can be used in cement manufacturingCSN image bank

One very illustrative case is that of the partnership between the Institute of Sleep and the EMS group, a Brazilian drug manufacturer, in developing a new remedy for insomnia. The drug in question is Patz and its principal active ingredient is zolpidem, which was already being sold worldwide by the French multinational Sanofi Aventis and is to be taken orally. EMS decided to develop a version of the drug but to include a new feature: it could be administered sublingually. The company invested a total of R$25 million in research and development. Since the drug acted more quickly than when taken orally, it could be used to overcome sleeplessness occurring in the middle of the night. This was because it is able to induce sleep within as little as 12 minutes after use, while employing only half the dose used in the oral version. The pharmacochemical stage of the research was conducted at EMS’s own facilities. The firm then contacted the Sleep Institute in São Paulo to perform clinical tests on patients. “Drug development is just one of the factors that opens up the possibilities for partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry,” notes Dalva Poyares, director of research at the Sleep Institute. “Clinical tests also provide an opportunity for interaction with companies,” she says. In that case, the final stages of laboratory testing can be decisive in enabling the company to handle problems not noticed during development of the drug. Poyares explains that one of the substances present in the initial version of the EMS medication, almorextant, can, after some months of use, alter a patient’s liver function. The company had to replace that ingredient with another, suvorexant, which, like the previous one, inhibits hypocretin, one of the neurotransmitters that regulates wakefulness. Today, the drug is already available on the U.S. market and has been patented internationally. “Partnerships with research institutions represent an opportunity for exchanging and internalizing scientific knowledge,” says Ricardo Vian Marques, director of strategic development at EMS.

038-043_universidade-empresa_224-02Dalva Poyares says that industry is not the only one responsible for the meager interaction with companies in the life sciences. She says researchers need to enhance their contacts with the private sector and understand how innovation processes work. “Unlike engineers, who are always dealing with patents and specific legislation that affects innovation, researchers in biology receive very little training in handling those subjects. A research group may possess some innovative knowledge or technology, but in order for industry to find out about it, patents must be generated at universities,” Poyares observes.

Although in general it is unlikely that the Brazilian pharmaceutical industry will introduce a completely new drug, there is a case in Minas Gerais that is an exception to the rule. In 2008, Hertape Calier Saúde Animal, a Minas company, was the first in the world to introduce a recombinant vaccine against canine visceral leishmaniasis. Leish-Tec was developed in partnership with research groups from UFMG. The vaccine was produced by inserting the genetic information of a protein found in the Leishmania chagasi protozoa into bacteria that were later replicated (see Pesquisa FAPESP No. 164).

One of the research groups involved in the project was the immunology group at the Biological Sciences Institute of UFMG, headed by physician and biochemist Ricardo Tostes Gazzinelli. Since 1995, the group has been accumulating knowledge about the antigen of Leishmania, which was a determining factor in Hertape Calier seeking out the team. “We had already published articles and come up with theories about the subject, so that caught the company’s attention,” recalls Gazzinelli, who also coordinates the National Institute of Vaccine Science and Technology (INCTV), affiliated with the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation. An agreement was signed in 2004 for a transfer of technology between Hertape Calier and the UFMG, calling for financial participation by the company in both the research phase and the production and sale of the vaccine at the end of the project. Through the partnership, Hertape Calier eventually invested more than R$500,000 in research projects conducted at UFMG laboratories. In royalties alone, the university has received about R$100,000 a year since 2008—showing that a partnership built around a project can often generate long-term benefits for the university.