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Virtuous circle

Taxes paid by innovative companies exceed amount of public investments

Public investments in science and technology form a sort of virtuous circle, which is completed with innovative companies, jobs creation, and growing tax collection. Quantifying the return of these investments is no easy task. There are no statistics available and, by the very nature of scientific research, the injection of funds in one or other area does not always produce results in the short term. But, in the case of some projects strongly associated with the market, carried out in partnership between universities and companies, it is possible to risk an estimate. Between 2001 and the middle of 2002, the tax payment of at least eight of the 30 companies connected with the Center for Research into Optics and Photonics (CePOF), one of the ten Research, Innovation and Diffusion Centers (Cepids) sponsored by FAPESP, added up to R$ 10.5 million.

This result was more than double the Foundation’s investments of R$ 4.5 million over two years, according to a calculation by Vanderlei Bagnato, the coordinator of the Center for Optics and Photonics in São Carlos. These innovative companies are also meeting another target desired by any developing country’s government: they supply the market with products that are similar to and cheaper than the imported ones, and when the quality opens the door to the foreign market, they add value to the exported national product.

The example from CePOF makes it plain that the fulcrum for this whole process is partnership. The center gathers together 140 researchers from the physics institutes of the University of São Paulo (USP), in São Carlos, and of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (Ipen), Unicamp’s School of Medical Sciences, USP’s School of Medicine in Ribeirão Preto, and the Amaral Carvalho Hospital in Jaú. This is the city where a cancer treatment center using laser light has been set up. The CePOF – which, like the other Cepids, has among its objective knowledge transfer to the private sector – keeps up its links with 60 companies from the Campinas and São Carlos, which express themselves in the shared development of products and the supply of research services, and even in making their laboratories available.

The joint efforts of universities and private enterprise generate much more than taxes: they produced 20 patents, from the beginning of 2001 to October 2002 – and five of these have been licensed and the resulting products are now being marketed. “This relationship is a two-way street, in which both the risks and the gains are split between the parties”, Bagnato comments. “And we are still learning to work at the pace of the companies, which need agility in their launches, to prevent a competitor from taking the lead”, he adds. He goes even further: he estimates that the companies connected with the CePOF, in São Carlos, are also making a contribution towards reducing, by US$ 1 million a year, Brazil’s costs with the imports of products in the areas of optics and photonics.

One example of this is Opto Eletrônica. The company developed an instrument with the diode laser technology, for treating tumors and macular degeneration linked to old age, one of the most common causes of blindness in the aged. Its market price is US$ 10,000. Its imported equivalent goes for US$ 30,000. The company is now reaching an agreement for marketing it in Europe. The equipment was developed in conjunction with the CePOF, and with the support of researchers from USP’s School of Medicine and of the São Paulo School of Medicine, of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp).

Opto Eletrônica had the support of FAPESP’s Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE). The funds totaled R$ 117.3 million and US$ 115,800. The company currently has revenues of R$ 50 million and 460 employees. It originated at the High Technology Park Foundation (ParqTec) in 1985, and, in the last few years, expanded its business until it formed a conglomerate made up of Opto Sul, in Rio Grande do Sul; Opto USA, in the United States; Opto LA, in Mexico; and Artech, headquartered in São Carlos, which is the leader in the Brazilian market for treating lenses to get the anti-reflective effect in glasses. “The market of anti-reflective glasses has enormous potential in Brazil”, observes Jarbas Castro, the president of the group. It has only two competitors in the international market: one American company and a Japanese one, which recently transferred production to China so as to reduce costs and remain competitive in relation to the Brazilian product.

In Campinas, the partnership with the CePOF was strategic for consolidating the market for companies like Komlux, which produces Blanket Lux, a mantle woven of optical fibers for treating physiological jaundice, which, every year, affects 5% of the newly-born babies in Brazil. The mantle, which was the cover story of issue n° 44 of the Pesquisa FAPESP magazine, published in July 1999, is awaiting certification by the Brazilian Sanitary Surveillance Agency, and will be put onto the market for about R$ 2,900, against the US$ 3,500 of the imported equivalent.

“Latin American and European companies, and from others from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, have already shown interest in Blanket Lux”, says Cícero Lívio Omnega Filho, Komlux’s director-president. The development of the mantle was supported by FAPESP, also in the ambit of PIPE, with total funds of R$ 169,200 and US$ 125,200, and gave rise to two patents. The capacity for innovation of the companies connected with the center has been a fundamental factor for expanding their competitiveness at home and abroad. “Both in optics and in photonics, there are various sufficiently original themes for scientific research, with a great market potential”, says Hugo Fragnito, from Unicamp’s Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute, and the coordinator of the CePOF, in Campinas.

Technological interchange
The association with the CePOF also favors technological interchange between partner companies. One of the biggest customers of Opto, of São Carlos, in the line of reflectors for dentistry, is Gnatus, of Ribeirão Preto, a manufacturer of equipment for dentistry, the third in the world market, with exports to the four continents. With 27 years in activity, the company, which sold R$ 70 million in 2002 – some R$ 30 million in sales abroad -, started to draw closer to research institutes in the mid-90s, with a view to certifying its products, so as to adapt them to international requirements. At the time, the value of the Brazilian currency was almost equal to the US dollar, and efficiency was asine qua non condition for keeping one’s position in the market. Today, Gnatus has all the internationally recognized certificates and reaches extremely high levels of productivity, with its 460 employees. “Partnerships have been intensifying and tend to grow”, explains Gilberto Nomelini, the company’s director superintendent. “Before 2003 is out, we should go into the laser segment”, he reveals.

In 2001, an alliance between Gnatus, the CePOF and MM Optics, a small company from São Carlos, with a staff of 20, resulted in the patenting of two high performance rigid fibers for photopolymerizers, using LED (light emitting diode) technology; they are used for dental resins, to harden them. “The Optlight LD photopolymerizer, which was a byproduct of research, is recognized as the best apparatus in its category, and is now being exported to various countries”, says Nomelini. MM Optics was created in 1998 by a group of engineers, with the objective of producing the first Brazilian microscopes for educational purposes, competing with the Chinese ones. “We launched an end product that is more robust and precise, at a final price 35% lower than the imported one”, recalls Fernando Mendonça Ribeiro, one of the founders of the company, which last year commemorated the R$ 1 million mark in sales.

In 1999, the company turned to the development of lasers for medical and odontological purposes, at the request of USP’s Physics Institute in São Carlos, which was trying to meet the demand from USP’s School of Odontology in São Paulo. Baptized as the Twin Laser, the product is now in its second version, and it costs R$ 3,600, against R$ 15,000 for the equivalent imported product. It can also be used in dermatology and acupuncture, amongst other applications. In 2001, together with the CePOF, the Syrio-Lebanese Hospital of São Paulo and USP’s Faculty of Odontology, MM Optics developed the Mucolaser, a low potency laser for the treatment of mucositis, an infection that affects patients with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The equipment costs R$ 7,000.

And, in 2003, the company launched their Bright LEC, which uses fibers developed in partnership with the CePOF and Gnatus, and combines in just one apparatus techniques for polymerization and whitening of the teeth. It costs R$ 3,800, a little more than one quarter of the amount for the similar imported ones. The product’s quality and competitiveness have won over the foreign market: 7% of the sales of MM Optics came from sales abroad. In Campinas, companies linked to the CePOF also have their eyes on the foreign market. Padtec, the only company in the Southern Hemisphere to produce a communication system with WDM technology, which expands the transmission capacity of the optical fiber networks, intends to reach US$ 3 million in export sales this year.

“Besides Latin America, we are beginning to do business with India”, says Jorge Salomão Pereira, the director of technology. The company separated itself from the CPqD Foundation – a research arm of the Telebrás system -, its main stockholders, in mid-2001. Six months afterwards, Banco Pactual bought 22.5% of its stock. It is currently the market leader of the segment in the Brazilian market, supplying the main telecommunication companies in the country; sales of US$ 5 million were recorded in 2002, of which 10% went to the coffers of the state and 12% to the federal coffers. And it has even multiplied its workforce from ten to 60 employees in two years. “Our average salary is US$ 900”, Pereira reveals.

“We have never lost anyone because of salary”, guarantees José Ripper, the president of Asga. The company, which has 30 employees, also originated in the CPqD and is nowadays a partner of CePOF. Asga was the first company in the country to develop an optic multiplexer – equipment for telecommunications operating companies that transforms luminous electrical signals in optical fiber networks. Asga gets R$ 299,800 and US$ 153,000 from PIPE. It now has branches in Argentina and in Mexico, besides representatives in Asia, and it grossed US$ 30 million in 2002. This year, to compensate for the downturn of investments in the sector, the company’s strategy is to expand its foreign business. “We have always done basic science, and we will continue to do so, but without losing from sight the commitment to produce wealth for the country”, Bagnato concludes.