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Innovative Regions

23 July 2014

Tech Transfer Regions: Latin America

At present, Latin America is somewhat lagging in terms of technology transfer compared to its neighbours in the north of the continent. However, beneath the surface is an area which is seeking to elevate itself. This month, we take a look at Brazil and Argentina’s potential for tech transfer, and the barriers which hold the region back.

Author: Gregg Bayes-Brown, editor

Brazil

When it comes to academic recognition, Brazil is a long way behind peers in Europe, Asia, and North America. Its top ranking university – the highest of all the nations in South and Central America – is the University of São Paulo, which achieved the 127 spot in the latest QS World University Rankings.

One of the main reasons behind this is Brazil’s late start into science and technology. Prior to its independence in 1822, Portugal had veered away from bringing education to the then colony, fearing that a literate populace would stride towards nationalism. Even after 1822, the country would still send students to universities in Portugal, and the country didn’t form any institutions of its own until the 20th century. Even to this day, the country still lags behind in literacy rates (at 91.3%) compared to other nations in the area.

Scientific efforts were further hampered in the 1980s when the Brazilian government pursued a protectionist policy on computing. While the policy created growth in Brazilian ICT firms, the products were generally inferior to computing technology being developed abroad. Eventually, the government was forced to drop its policy.

Today, Brazil’s universities take over 90% of research funding from the government. Most research in Brazil takes place at public universities and research institutes, although the government has been encouraging more private institutions and companies to participate over the past couple of decades. Regardless, Brazil remains largely a technology importer than exporter. Broadly speaking, many Brazilian companies lack the funds to create their own R&D departments nor to invest in research at institutions. The companies large enough to operate in the high technology space are multinationals with bases in Brazil and R&D departments (and university partnerships) in countries such as the US or in the EU. However, some international firms do conduct research in Brazil, most notable IBM, which has had a research base in the country since the 1970s.

Brazil’s main base for research is in its south-east region, which is responsible for nearly half of the country’s scientific output. Stretching 400km from Sao Paulo inland, the Brazilian Science-Technology Corridor is home to the country’s largest and most successful technology transfer operation at Unicamp. The institution’s technology transfer office Inova which has been steadily growing in size and scope over the past decade, and is now the largest TTO in Latin America.

Inova now has 866 patents to its name, and last year secured $255,000 in royalties from its activities. It is delivering year-on-year improvement on all its key performance indicators, and supports new companies with its incubator Incamp, which takes in roughly ten firms per year. The TTO has also recently completed a three-year partnership with the University of Cambridge’s TTO Cambridge Enterprise. The UK TTO took on several of Inova’s staff members as part of its International Outreach Programme with a view to share knowledge on effective technology transfer, seed funds, how to add value to inventions, best negotiation practice, and communication strategies.

As the project only recently concluded, it is too early to assess the impact Cambridge’s know-how will have on Inova, but the project did uncover barriers to effective technology transfer in Brazil. Enhancing collaboration by the technology transfer office with surrounding universities and businesses is one of the top priorities, according to the report. It also highlighted the need for a deep assessment of the Brazilian technology transfer process in terms of finding the funding required to scale new technologies, further skill development of tech transfer professionals, a broader thinking with regards to marketing of Brazilian technologies (both locally and internationally), and a revision of Brazil’s 2004 Innovation Act.

Brazil as a whole does find itself in a state of rapid transition. The country is one of the fastest growing economies on the planet, and yet the recent global attention garnered by the 2014 Football World Cup and the Olympics in 2016 highlighted the plight of many Brazilians living in the country’s favelas. If Brazil wishes to match its economic rise to the global stage with scientific output, it must start by correcting its long history of intellectual apathy.

 

Argentina

Conversely to Brazil, Argentina has the highest literacy rates in Latin America, and has a solid scientific lineage. Argentine Bernardo Houssay was the first Latin American to receive a Nobel Prize in 1947, and the country still has the most laureates in the surrounding area. The country has its own satellite programme, nuclear power, and is also credited for creating the first artificial heart in 1969. The country also has the highest number of university students in Latin America.

However, in terms of technology transfer, Argentina does not perform so well. The University of Buenos Aires, the country’s top ranked and most well established research university, would appear to be the only institution with a dedicated technology transfer department – Secyt – which couldn’t provide any statistics to measure its success.

A factor that needs to be considered with regards to Argentina’s scientific prowess is its lack of funding due to several decades of turbulence in the country. Up until 1930, the country had utilised its resources and agricultural ability to become one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Its agricultural technology is still respected in the present day, and one of the biggest recent news events in Argentine tech transfer came last year when the country signed with nine African countries to export agricultural technology.

However, from 1930 onwards, the country has been rocked by several massive political movements, leading to both stagnation and extended periods of economic depression. The most recent economic crisis in Argentina, which ultimately led to a default, took place in 1999 and lasted until 2002 and contracted the country’s economy by 20%. The country found further trouble in the global economic crisis in 2008 and, despite modest growth following its default, entered into a period of austerity in 2012.

At present, the country is still embroiled in a legal battle with US-based hedge funds which are suing the country for full repayment of defaulted sovereign bonds after the funds held out on a restructuring deal following its last default which saw creditors accept less than 30 cents on the dollar. The Argentine government has until the end of the month to reach a deal, which threatens a second default and bleak times ahead for the country. Should a deal not be made, it would be a fairly safe bet that developing technology transfer in the country will be pushed to the bottom of President Cristina Fernandez’s priority list.

 

Image: Dave Pape, NASA/GSFC

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