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Innovation

Pioneering efforts

International report acknowledges the work done by the Inova Unicamp agency for the promotion of partnerships with companies, the government and society

MARCOS GARUTIA recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development/OECD, comprising the world’s 30 most highly industrialized countries, resulted in an unexpected recognition of the efforts of the State University of Campinas/Unicamp to share with society the knowledge-related advances achieved by its researchers.  The OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2008 report analyzed research, development and innovation in several countries; in the chapter on Brazil, the organization highlighted the work done by the Agência de Inovação Inova Unicamp agency, in relation to obtaining patents for an increasing number of inventions made at the institution and for increasing license technology agreements for companies by 60% in 2004 and 2005. Recent data has shown that an average of eight licenses a year were granted to companies in the period from 2004 to 2007.

The agency is referred to as an example of the growth in the number of academic patents in the country. “This reference is very rewarding to us, because it attests to the success of the international insertion of our activities,” says Roberto de Alencar Lotufo, the agency’s executive director and a professor at Unicamp’s School of Electric Engineering and Computer Sciences.

Inova Unicamp was created in 2003 with the purpose of becoming the university’s center for technological innovation. The agency’s objective is to promote and support partnerships between Unicamp and companies, governments and society. The agency’s core activity is the management of intellectual property. It works together with researchers from Unicamp, helping them identify whether the products resulting from their scientific discoveries have commercial potential. In addition, the agency advises them on the innovations’ patenting and licensing processes. Inova Unicamp also maintains a relationship network with companies and government agencies, through which it shows the potential of the patents for commercial use. This is the characteristic of Inova Unicamp’s activities that was praised by the OECD.

It is not surprising that this effort has placed Unicamp at the top of the ranking of patent requests filed with the Instituto Nacional de Propriedade Industrial/INPI in the period from 1999 to 2003 – at the moment, more than 500 patents are in effect. This data, although highly positive, reveals an inversion of roles in Brazil – in the developed countries, the top-ranked patents are filed by companies rather than by academic institutions (see Pesquisa FAPESP nr. 123). In the last four years, Inova Unicamp entered into 40 licensing agreements with companies, in comparison to only 6 in the fifteen years prior to the establishment of the agency.

The outstanding success cases include a test to detect genetically-caused deafness in newborn babies. The related technology, developed at the Laboratório de Genética Humana [human genetics lab] of the Centro de Biologia Molecular e Engenharia Genética center, was licensed in 2004 for DLE, a diagnostics company, and was consolidated in the market in the following year, having achieved its goal of conducting 30 such tests a month.

Another example is a plant-based drug which lessens the symptoms of menopause; the drug was developed from soy bean-extracted isoflavones, substances whose structure is similar to that of estrogen. Developed at the School of Food Engineering/FEA, this drug has been on the market since last year, and is licensed by Steviafarma, a Brazilian pharmaceutical company. TF-Test, a new feces parasitological lab test, more sensitive than the existing tests, was licensed to the Imunoassay Laboratory. The kit was developed by researchers from the Computer Sciences Institute, Biology Institute and the Medical School, in partnership with a retired University of São Paulo/USP professor. Products made from a blend of natural rubber and clay will be launched in the market in mid-2009; these products can be used in various industrial segments. The technology allows the clay to be thinly divided to a nanometric thickness that is 100 thousand times thinner than a strand of hair. The product was patented by researcher Fernando Galembeck and his team from the Chemistry Institute, and the ownership of the patent is shared by Unicamp and the Orbys Desenvolvimento de Tecnologia de Materiais company, which manufactures this material.

MARCOS GARUTIInventors
An example of the change in mentality is visible at the Medical School of the State University of Campinas. Before Inova Unicamp had been created, four researchers dedicated themselves to creating innovative products; their work, however, had not resulted in any licensing. From 2003 onwards, the number of inventors has risen to 22, with four patent licensing agreements. “We celebrate each time we license a patent, because this means that once again a product or a process will be available to society,” says Roberto Lotufo. “But this system is costly and time-consuming. The company needs to invest for a number of years until the innovation materializes.”

In 2004, one year after the agency had been created, Congress approved the Lei de Inovação [innovation law] which, among other provisions, established that all science and technology institutions had to implement centers responsible for supervising the institutions’ innovation policies. As Unicamp is at the forefront in this respect, it has become a reference for other institutions, especially the federal universities. “By creating the agency, Unicamp’s directors realized that this was the time to foster an academic policy in favor of innovation guided by science. And this has placed the agency in a pioneering position,” says Oswaldo Massambani, director of USP’s Agência de Inovação agency, created in 2005, which has already been able to obtain more than 200 patents in 2007 and 2008 – more than the number of patent applications filed by Unicamp in the last two years.

In view of such good results, Inova Unicamp was contracted by the Financiadora de Estudos e Projetos/Finep, an agency of the Ministry of Science and Technology, to give training courses to other universities interested in creating centers of technological innovation, within the scope of the Inova NIT project. “Based on our results, we prepared a training course to help institutions create their centers,” says Patricia de Toledo, project manager. “Our courses not only help the universities take their first steps in this respect, but also help improve skills,” she stated. The project has already trained more than 700 professionals from 177 science and technology institutions in Brazil. The leading course which has already been held nine times, is a course on organizing technological innovation centers (NIT). One of the goals now is to create long-distance courses to expand their reach. To carry out this training program, Inova NIT partnered with the Fórum Nacional de Gestores de Inovação e Transferência de Tecnologia/Fortec. In April 2009, Unicamp will host the third meeting of the forum, the theme of which will be the five years of the Lei de Inovação.

The agency also networks partnerships with city governments, within the scope of the Inova nos Municípios project, which offers results of academic research conducted at universities in the form of courses, lectures or consulting services. One of the ways of building a bridge between researchers and the cities is the Caderno de Propostas para Projetos, a file of proposals made by professors from all departments of Unicamp, such proposals available to establish agreements with city governments. The file contains 110 project proposals, the topics of which include agribusiness, culture, education, jobs and income, among others.

The lack of professionals able to conduct prospecting and evaluate the potential market for technologies developed at universities inspired the Programa de Investigação Tecnológica [technological investigation program], which has trained 63 students and analyzed 83 technologies since 2005. Inova Unicamp also provides the support for technology-related ideas of graduate and post-graduate students to be transformed into business projects. In the agency’s pre-incubation project, students organize work groups and submit their ideas to selection processes. The selected projects rely on the guidance of academic mentors and market mentors to be developed into business plans. Finally, the agency currently houses Incamp, Unicamp’s technology incubator, which has resulted in 17 new companies since 2005.

Educating students
In spite of such impressive results, Roberto Lotufo states that Inova Unicamp is still at the learning stage. “We are trying to consolidate our activities, but we still cannot state that we are sure about the best direction to follow,” he said. In his opinion, the financial returns from patents and licenses is a secondary aspect to the work done by the agency. “The meaning of licensing technologies is to make them available to society and create opportunities for the university to conduct better research work, able to stimulate researchers and reinforce students’ education. We want our students to be trained at the frontiers of knowledge, and to become familiar with the challenges posed by society,” says Lotufo. The idea that universities will be able to finance their activities with royalties from patents is not supported by reality, says the agency’s director. Unicamp’s annual income from royalties of licensed patents ranges from approximately R$ 200 thousand to R$ 300 thousand – a tiny percentage of the institution’s budget. However, the agency has been able to achieve its goal of raising more than what it costs Unicamp to maintain it, and thus its activities are sustainable.

But why did Unicamp achieve this pioneering success in comparison to other institutions in terms of creating a technological innovation center? Of course the interaction that the university established with the private sector ever since it was founded, such as the partnership with Telebrás in the 1970’s, is one of the reasons. The university’s efforts to refine an intellectual property policy and implement technology transfer strategies goes way back to the 1980’s. Unicamp was one of the first universities in Brazil to create a technology protection structure. To this end, the university first created the Comissão Permanente de Propriedade Industrial/CPPI, in 1984; this was followed by the Escritório de Transferência de Tecnologia/ETT, in 1990. In 1998, the university created the Escritório de Difusão e Serviços Tecnológicos/Edistec. These institutions were created with the objective of encouraging partnerships with companies and government entities and of seeking practical applications for scientific knowledge. Several departments, especially the Chemistry Institute, which accounts for more than 40% of Unicamp’s patents, have helped strengthen this tradition. “In addition to concentrating top-notch researchers, these departments have a highly synergic view of the university-company relationship,” states Roberto Lotufo.

The agency’s director mentions other reasons for the success. “The strong support of successive deans was fundamental for the agency to become consolidated. This kind of work cannot be done without the full support of the university’s organization,” he says. Another reason, he says, is the existence of Funcamp, the sole foundation that supports research, at the university. “It is very common to see efforts being diluted when various foundations such as this one are found in the university, which happens frequently.” Lotufo points out that the effort to bring the university closer to society respects the university’s academic nature. “Everything is done very carefully, because the quality of academic research is the foundation for everything. Unicamp’s departments with the highest number of licenses have the highest scores in the evaluation conducted by Capes,” he stated.

One of the main goals for 2009 is to increase the strategies to protect and market the technologies. To this end, Inova Unicamp has recently launched Pró-NIT SP, a project funded by Finep, which involves seven universities in São Paulo, as follows: three state universities, the Federal Universities of São Paulo/Unifesp and São Carlos/UFSCar, the Instituto de Pesquisas Tecnológicas/IPT technology research institute and the Centro Técnico Aerospacial/CTA technical institute. The objective of the project is to define a methodology of analysis and standardized procedures for the three main phases of the marketing process: the communication of the invention, the application for a patent and the negotiation and licensing of the patent.

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