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Create Companies From Latin American Universities: It's Worth It

By Amilcar Estrada, Ph.D. - Bleps Vision


Mon, 11/07/2022 - 12:00

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What begins as an academic project in a university or public institute laboratory does not always turn into a business idea that has an impact and market beyond educational and scientific relevance.

Scientists in Latin America are usually trained to dedicate themselves to doing science for universities or research laboratories. There is no agreed training under the criteria of responding to metrics that define the viability of academic research that may lead to the eventual formation of a product or a startup.

It has become increasingly relevant today to do science designed for industry: private enterprise.

The academic community has been promoting the possibility of taking your projects beyond academic frontiers. To achieve this, universities and financial agencies have been changing the evaluation metrics for projects and researchers. Now, more weight is given to patents and registrations of new products than to scientific papers, supervised theses, and presentations of scientific lectures at conferences or academic meetings.

Brazil is at the forefront of this paradigm shift in Latin American markets.

The Brazilian promoting agencies for science and technology have convinced many scientists that the engine of an economy is boosted by starting companies that arise from academic projects (spin-offs) and solve immediate problems in sectors such as communications, health, the environment, natural resources, renewable energy, transportation and banking.

I remember the first time I was in São Paulo, Brazil, in 2011. As a Ph.D. student, I visited the research laboratories of the University of São Paulo and the University of Campinas. Both universities are in the select group of the best universities in Ibero-America. In all the research groups I had the opportunity to meet and see how they worked, there was a common factor: they proudly showed the patents earned and the spin-offs they had created in recent years.

Some, such as MMO  and OPTO, both spin-offs incubated at Universidad of São Paulo, are very successful and with market projections beyond Brazilian borders.

Something different happened in Mexico in those days: the Mexican national agency for promoting and financing science and technology still emphasized traditional products of academic impact (papers, theses, and others). So, the community of scientists continued to believe that his work was relevant only to conservative spheres of knowledge. That is usually the one that encompasses academia and education.

Fortunately, in Mexico, the outlook has changed in the last five years. Technology-based innovation is moving forward appropriately.  Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Tecnológico de Monterrey (TEC), and Universidad de Guadalajara, have spin-off incubation and acceleration programs. Many Mexican scientists are being encouraged to go beyond academic frontiers with their ideas.

The US, the European Union, and other developed countries have an advantage over the reality that Latin American countries are experiencing. Their governments understood that they had to take risks and invest in the generation of an ecosystem of development and technological innovation that would impact their economies, taking as a base the new knowledge, which has historically been generated in universities and research institutes.

It is well known that the internet, the global positioning system (GPS), liquid-crystal display (LCD), and other inventions would not be part of our life if governments had not taken the risk of investing millions of dollars in grants and seed capital for universities and research laboratories, which promoted the starting of spin-offs.

For instance, Siri and the touchscreen were outcomes of the academic projects conducted at the Stanford Research Institute and the University of Delaware, respectively.

It is a belief in the value and power of knowledge to impact all aspects of society.

During the pandemic, without science and technology, we would not have won this tough battle against COVID-19.

Today, many countries that do not belong to the G20 (the most significant economies worldwide) have promoted bigger budgets for the entrepreneurship of technology-based companies (both software and hardware) that solve problems in different sectors of society.

Those countries are beginning to promote the development of a knowledge-based economy that generates wealth beyond the natural resources of each country. It is the way that a country overcomes poverty and becomes a prosperous nation.

Such is the case of Estonia and Spain in Europe, and Chile in Latin America. These countries have new laws to promote startups, benefiting the increasingly used digital residences.

Therefore, society needs the scientific community with a solid background and innovative ideas to solve the challenges it faces. But for this to happen, the scientific community must extend its interests beyond the academic and start creating spin-offs. The outcomes will be the generation of new jobs, profits, and an innovation culture that will help transform all of society.

Creating a spin-off from a university to the private sector is not easy. To do this, you will have to strengthen your soft skills (commercial and communication, among others), which require a lot of patience and adaptability to this unknown world for many. But even so, it will always be worth it.

Photo by:   Amilcar Estrada

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