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sectoral consortia

Partnership and good business

Universities and companies invest in innovation to boost exports

Santa Gertrudes, a municipality in São Paulo with a little over 16,000 inhabitants, is the largest center for producing ceramic floors in the Americas. There are 40 companies there, producing 200 million square meters a year of ceramic tiles, 40% of Brazil’s production. Exports still represent 10% of sales, but they are growing every year, shipped mainly to the markets of America, Mercosur, Latin America and Europe. But the product from Santa Gertrudes still has a low added value: the price abroad varies from US$ 2 to US$ 3 the square meter, one third of the market value of similar Italian and Spanish products. To consolidate foreign business and improve the quality and competitiveness of the product, the Brazilian Ceramic Center (CCB), laboratories connected with the University of São Paulo (USP), the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and the São Paulo State University (Unesp) and a group of 20 local companies have formed, with support from FAPESP, the Sectorial Consortium of the Ceramic Tile Industry in the State of São Paulo.

“Competitiveness is no longer price, but innovation”, explains José Octávio Armani Paschoal, the president of the CCB, the coordinator of the consortium, and a researcher at the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (Ipen). This partnership for developing the ceramic tile sector was the first to be set up in the ambit of the Sectorial Consortiums for Technological Innovation (ConSITec) program, launched by FAPESP in 2000 to stimulate collaboration between research groups linked to research institutions and companies in the same sector, for solving technological problems of common interest. Another consortium with a similar format, bringing together a private university and three pharmaceutical laboratories, has now been formalized. The objective is to investigate and to validate new phytomedicines using plants from Brazilian biodiversity.

New materials
In the case of tiles, research is being carried out at the laboratories of the Center for Technological Innovation in Ceramics, inaugurated last year. In one of the lines of investigation, for example, the researchers are studying the use of new materials for porcellanato, a ceramic regarded as top of the line, as it absorbs less water, between 0% and 0.5%, it has less porosity and greater resistance. The results of this research are strategic: the level of water absorption in the products from the industry in Santa Gertrudes lies between 6% and 10%. “We are already on the way to 3%, which is the average for Europe”, says Paschoal. The researchers are also developing high performance enamels that resist wear, for applications in floors with heavy traffic – as, for example, in supermarkets – and bactericide enamels for hospital use. “We are thereby targeting new market niches”, Paschoal explains.

For a period of three years, FAPESPwill support the consortium, with funds for implementing and modernizing laboratories and by means of scholarships applied for individually by the researchers taking part. The partner companies contribute with R$ 50,000 a year, at the least, for the maintenance of the consortium, depending on their size and form of participation. Paschoal explains that some companies are at a stage he classifies as “pre-competitive”, as he says; that is, in order to perfect the products, they need knowledge of general interest that does not interfere with the market strategies of the sector as a whole. Other companies have, as he says, “a more competitive focus”, with a demand for specific information for innovating in the product and consolidating the market.

For these companies, the Center is carrying out, for example, design projects, always protected by non-disclosure agreements. “This guarantees that the information does not reach the competitor”, says the coordinator of the consortium. The expectation is for the research to consolidate the foreign market, to add value to the product, and to raise the price of the square meter sold abroad. Innovation will also bring other advantages: it will increase the earnings of the ceramics center and the number of jobs in the region. “We want to be a success story”, Paschoal concludes.

The biotechnology nucleus of the University of Ribeirão Preto (Unaerp) entered into a consortium with three laboratories for pharmaceutical products, in order to develop, with support from FAPESP, new phytomedicines with Brazilian plant. “It is not a question of using the traditional knowledge, but of incorporating technological knowledge with biodiversity assets”, explains Suzelei de Castro França, a director of the consortium and the coordinator of the Biotechnology and Postgraduate Studies in Biotechnology Nucleus at Unaerp. Started six months ago, the research intends to validate six new phytomedicinals for human use, two for each one of the partner companies. “They are not competing products, since they have distinct therapeutic actions”, the director observes.

The products were selected after a careful market survey, which found there were no similar products in the domestic market. The laboratories in the consortium – Luciomed and Unifarma, from São Paulo, and Amazonervas, from Amazonas – are of a medium and small size, and this project gives them the research infrastructure and the knowledge developed at the university for implementing new products. “Our participation is to validate effectiveness and safety in the use of phytomedicinals, in accordance with the legislation of the Brazilian Sanitary Surveillance Agency (Anvisa), with special attention to the control over the chemical quality, configuring each asset of the plant. Once this is done, the companies implement the process of production”, she explains. The association through the partners is done through a technological and scientific cooperation agreement, which provides for the benefits being split, in the case of patents being lodged or of royalties.

Suzelei is betting on the success of the enterprise. “The Brazilian market for phytomedicines is growing at a rate of from 15% to 20% a year and is now registered sales of US$ 1 billion”, she says, comparing this with world-wide sales of US$ 15 billion. “It is, without a doubt, a significant share, in spite of our biodiversity being under-exploited”, she stresses. For the moment, the investigations are limited to research into research in new phytopharmaceuticals for human use. “But we are also going to develop products for animal use”, Suzelei discloses. The expectation is that the validation of the products will be concluded in two or three years, when the phytomedicinals will beready for clinical tests.