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The end of an era

The end of the FAPESP intellectual property protection program indicates there has been progress in the passing of scientific knowledge onto society

Patricia Brandstatter

After 21 years of activity, the Support Program for Intellectual Property (PAPI)—established by FAPESP in 2000 to encourage the scientific community of São Paulo to protect commercially viable original research results—came to an end last June. The Foundation decided to shut down the program once it became clear that its main objective—establishing a culture of intellectual property protection in universities and scientific institutions, in order to pass knowledge onto society and the productive sector—had been fulfilled. “PAPI had an important inductive role,” explains attorney Patricia Tedeschi, manager of Research for Innovation at the FAPESP Scientific Board. “In 2000, when not many researchers were looking into the commercial applications of their work, the Foundation showed them how important this was and began funding patent applications linked to projects it had funded.”

The scenario has changed in these two decades. With the advent of the Innovation Law in 2004, and improvements in science and technology legislation approved in 2016, universities and research centers took on an active role in protecting intellectual property through the Technological Innovation Centers (NIT)—in charge of promoting the patenting of inventions and licensing them for commercial use. In 2019, 270 public and private institutions in Brazil managed their innovation policies through these centers, many of them using an agency format, according to data from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI).

Over the past 10 years, the focus of PAPI has shifted to helping institutions gain autonomy. Instead of meeting only individual requests from researchers that were interested in protecting the knowledge generated by them, in 2011 the program began offering resources to universities, reimbursing part of their costs with patents for projects funded by FAPESP (PAPI – Institutional), or sponsoring training and skill building for their managers (PAPI – Training).

This shift had an impact on the consolidation of centers and agencies. “The program was key in the training of our technicians. Writing patent applications and promoting the transfer of technology is highly qualified work,” explains Vanderlan Bolzani, a professor at São Paulo State University (UNESP) who led its innovation agency, AUIN, from 2013 to 2016. “Without the financial support from FAPESP, through both PAPI – Institutional and PAPI – Training, universities would have a hard time organizing their innovation centers. AUIN was established after the USP and UNICAMP agencies.” In recent years, the institutions have become less interested in the program—a sign that its usefulness had come to an end. “Researchers with projects funded by the Foundation can use the resources from the technical reserve to pay for patent applications,” says Tedeschi, referring to the additional resources of a project used to cover unanticipated expenses.

In the early days of the program, FAPESP shared the ownership of patents with researchers and institutions, and royalty payments were divided into three equal parts. “It was the model adopted by Yissum, a technology transfer company from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel,” shares materials engineer Edgar Dutra Zanotto, a researcher at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) who helped implement PAPI in 2000, as an adjunct coordinator of the FAPESP Scientific Board. Social scientist Renée Ben-Israel, a 1970s alumna of the University of São Paulo (USP) and then coordinator at Yissum, was hired to help develop PAPI and organize the Patenting and Technology Licensing Center (NUPLITEC), tasked with managing the program.

“At the time, we realized our researchers were publishing their technological findings in scientific journals or PhD theses, with no concern for their commercial potential. When they realized this, it was too late, and they had missed the opportunity to apply for patents,” says Zanotto. According to the engineer, the intellectual property issue became relevant to the Foundation in the mid-1990s, when patent ownership criteria were discussed in the process of setting up two programs for research that was of interest to business: the Research Partnership for Technological Innovation Program (PITE) and the Technological Innovation in Small Businesses (PIPE) program.

In 2003, FAPESP got a royalty check for R$4,150.45—representing one third of the first return from one of the patents it funded. The check was delivered to the scientific and executive directors of the Foundation at the time—José Fernando Perez and Joaquim de Camargo Engler—by Vladimir Airoldi, a physicist from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and founder of Clorovale Diamantes, from São José dos Campos, a business that developed and patented dental drills using synthetic diamond tips.

When PAPI was reorganized in 2011, FAPESP gave up the ownership of patents to help inventors and their institutions and avoid bureaucratic issues in the management of intellectual property. But it has retained the right to a preestablished share of the royalty payments when the knowledge generated by a project is licensed. Last year, it collected about R$60,000 in royalty checks. With the spread of the NITs, many public universities have accumulated a large amount of patent applications. Because of the high cost of extending protection to other countries through the Patent Cooperation Treaty, they had to prioritize investing in technologies that are effectively viable. “Protection only makes sense if the institution has a structure dedicated to enabling technology transfer and its entry into the market,” explains lawyer Cristina Assimakopoulos, coordinator of NUPLITEC from 2007 to 2010 and current executive manager of Technology and Innovation at Vale.

Patricia Brandstatter

PAPI has helped university managers learn about this. The Innovation Agency at UFSCar, for example, had two of its projects included in the program. Through a 2016 project, technicians and managers were able to visit and learn about institutions in the United States and in European countries, which helped them figure out their strategies. According to production engineer Ana Lúcia Torkomian, project coordinator and then executive director of the UFSCar agency, a key insight acquired in these trips was that, unlike Brazilian universities, American and European university agencies were not limited to taking care of the legal aspects of patenting, as it was a commonplace process that only required the involvement of a few employees. They were more focused on promoting the transfer of technology and looking for businesses interested in licensing the intellectual property. “These offices were not for filing patents, but for selling,” he says, referring to institutions such as Bristol University, in England, and Strathclyde University, in Scotland. The knowledge gathered from these visits was published in a 2019 scientific paper on how institutions in seven countries were establishing innovation ecosystems.

Torkomian believes this has helped UFSCar modulate its strategies. One of the issues it faced was cost. One year after applying for a national patent, the institution had to decide whether to extend the protection to an international level—an expensive process whose maintenance only makes sense if the technology has concrete commercial potential. Universities in the United Kingdom and the United States used to maintain international protection for three years and then stop paying for those that were not promising. “After talking with other Brazilian agencies, we realized that three years was not enough for our reality, but five years would be a reasonable amount of time. We also came up with a series of indicators that measure the potential of a patent and help us decide whether or not to maintain it,” he explains.

The internships and visits to institutions abroad were also inspiring for the Inova UNICAMP Innovation Agency—one of the oldest and most well established in the country. According to computer engineer Roberto Lotufo, who chaired the agency from 2003 to 2013, knowing how things work abroad was key in establishing the UNICAMP innovation ecosystem. “We came up with an annual award for university inventors, inspired by what we saw in Israeli universities. It became clear that one way to encourage the protection of intellectual property is by rewarding inventors,” he explains.

“Inspired by Oxford University, which holds an annual dinner for alumni who have become entrepreneurs, we had the idea to honor our former students. We ask them to be advisors at the Innovation Agency, to mentor new entrepreneurs, and we increasingly support UNICAMP Ventures, a network for the businesses founded by successful UNICAMP alumni,” says Lotufo. The idea to promote lectures with former students and entrepreneurs was inspired by Cambridge University, even the days and times when the lectures are held—Thursday evenings. Lotufo explains that PAPI allowed UNICAMP to have a return on its patent investments when it came to FAPESP-backed researchers. “Keeping the patent active on an international level is costly. When it was left up to the researchers, they often kept paying for patents that were not commercially viable. Thanks to the innovation agencies, this process became more organized, and the financial support was important when this cost was not paid for by the university, as it is today,” he states.

Although PAPI has met its goals, its end causes some concern to innovation managers. “I am unsettled by the loss of a funding tool at a time when universities are facing a severe lack of funding. I fear they may need to prioritize other areas and will no longer sponsor the protection of intellectual property,” says Bolzani from UNESP. Assimakopoulos, from Vale, also sees possible risks. “The NITs need very well-trained staff, and I know of many centers where this is compromised by high turnover. That may not be an issue for institutions where the process is well established, but our circumstances are still unstable.”

Lotufo, from UNICAMP, believes the intellectual property protection system is well established in the universities but sees the need to create new mechanisms to support knowledge transfer. In his assessment, just as the projects have a “research stipend” that allows researchers to buy equipment and improve working conditions, it would be useful to put in place a kind of innovation allowance for the projects, to encourage technology licensing. “It would not take a high amount, and it would help encourage researchers to offer their findings to the market and expand the work of innovation agencies,” he states.

Scientific article
De Oliveira, M. R. et al. How to stimulate an entrepreneurial ecosystem? Experiences of North American and European universities. Innovar. Vol. 29, no. 71, pp. 11–24. 2019.