Research-industry relations

Today researchers are extremely interested in what the results of what they do can bring some benefit to the country.
One of the industrial sectors in which the most development and major investments have taken place internationally in recent years is the Biotechnology sector. Being certainly an area of ​​risk, it has been observed simultaneously with some failures, successes that have led to big business.

In Portugal the situation is somewhat expectant and although there are groups of quality scientists in various universities and other institutions in the country, there has been no development and implementation of their research in the productive sector.

In order to understand the current situation in the country, it is interesting to trace a small - and necessarily incomplete - history of what has been the investigation of modern biotechnologies in our country.

Some 25 years ago, there were a number of research groups in the country that were very focused on the fundamental biological sciences, and the first leap forward consisted in the creation of the Gulbenkian Institute of Science, where, by 1968, a small number of selected researchers found themselves surrounded Of all the conditions with which they had always dreamed to be able to realize cutting-edge science. This caused microbiology, biochemistry and cell biology to undergo a qualitative leap that projected that Institute to a privileged place in terms of Portuguese scientific research.

Several other groups, however, were already erupting in the 1970s, and were the result of an intelligent policy that, from the mid-1960s onwards, enabled and led to the holding of doctorates abroad. This was an essential measure for the development of science in Portugal in which INIC, the Portuguese Invotan committee and the Gulbenkian Foundation participated financially.

The above groups have led to the development of various disciplines, including biophysics, biochemical engineering and plant biotechnology.

Looking now at a distance of about fifteen years, it is curious to note that these groups knew how to collaborate with each other, and with those already installed in the Gulbenkian Institute of Science and, fighting for their increase in critical mass, were in fact the engines of modern Biotechnology in Portugal .

Of course, research in a country in an area as vast as biotechnology can not be dependent on a small number of nuclei, and therein lies the main weakness of biotechnology research in Portugal. Many well-sized groups would be needed to lead to faster progress and easier access to collaboration with international groups.

In some cases, our groups are in a situation of bottlenecks given the number of research projects they hold and the international requests for collaboration that come to them and which they are unable to meet.

Today, biotechnology research continues to be practiced in the Lisbon region in the I.G.C. In cell biology, genetics, biochemistry and microbiology, but the newly created Center for Chemical and Biological Technology, which brings together researchers from other groups in the areas of biophysics, molecular biology and plant biotechnology, who were suffocated in Inadequate facilities; The IST, where the initial objectives of biochemical engineering were contemplated with the necessary knowledge of microbiology and molecular biology; The Faculty of Sciences of Lisbon where the group of vegetal biotechnology has been establishing collaboration with other groups in order to cover complementary domains, to their areas of interest.

Many other groups work in the biotechnology region of Lisbon, showing a special growth trend of UNL and LNETI. Outside of Lisbon, the most active groups are Porto, the Center for Experimental Cytology and the emerging Higher School of Biotechnology and Braga and Coimbra in the respective Universities.

In 1986 Portuguese research started to participate in the European effort and this was a further step that not only marked certain groups, not only because of the funding they received but also because it forced them to work in association with scientific groups from other European countries and forced them To review the scientific objectives that have guided them so far.

Later it is the Science program that is bringing a new lease, now through funding for infrastructure that many groups were lacking.

Partnerships between various national groups are then promoted with a view to strengthening each other. The Institute of Biotechnology and Fine Chemistry thus emerges, which, in addition to the IST Biotechnology Section, includes the FCL Plant Biology, the Gulbenkian Science Institute, the CTQB and a promising young group at the University of Minho.

On the other hand, there is also an Institute of Porto associated to the Center of Experimental Cytology, a Center associated to the School of Biotechnology and a center in Lisbon in the U.N.L. Which is associated with LNETI groups. Also in the Azores is created a multidisciplinary center that will also work in Biotechnology.

The advancement of biotechnology does not just depend on researchers. It is frustrating that a country has a critical mass of researchers - which may be debatable if it is the Portuguese case - and that fails to realize the application of what is developed.

This is the situation in Portugal. There are apparently no entrepreneurs in the field of biotechnology capable or willing to bet on the implementation of the knowledge developed in the country. More is verified: it is not only the problem of not having entrepreneurs ready to bet on the area. More than that, and more worrying than that, in my view, is to verify that there is no entrepreneurial spirit, which is a criticism also to the researchers themselves. For years it has been said that the problem lay in the absence of venture capital societies. Today they exist, but neither researchers nor investors in general, who could use them, seem to want to try out the schemes that are offered. It is quite correct to say that the stakes in biotechnology pose some risk. How many societies were created in the US and the rest of the world and failed? The answer is many, and of those left over, most were still absorbed by large capitalist groups. However, despite this, a lot of money has been made from biotechnology, and every initiative that is taken represents a step forward, is a bet on the future and an incentive to research. The failure turns out to be only partial because it always results in benefits for the Society and for the future entrepreneurs, who are in reality the same ones that have failed previously.

The lack of entrepreneurs leads to total marasmus that in Portugal has only been exceeded due to the fact that the researchers do not stop to believe, and in the background to be possessed of the perhaps wrong notion, that one can do research in biotechnology without having the ultimate objective the app.

Of course, if an investor goes to an investigator and tells him "I want to invest in biotechnology, tell me why," he may not be able to come up with an instant solution. To enable a more positive response to this request, a portfolio of opportunities has been formed, consulting the researchers on which of their outcomes they think are closest to the industrial application. This portfolio was, at a very preliminary stage, published by ICP in view of an exhibition held in Lisbon. These tokens give ideas in terms of areas that could be addressed and have now been worked out in collaboration with the newly created Innovation Agency in order to support potential investors.

It is unfortunate that the entrepreneur does not also take an approach to researchers, giving them ideas about products that might be of interest to them. The few contacts that are going on usually fail because at one point the researcher, admitting to the positive that he is interested, says that doing this investigation implies some investment, and that is, in general, the end of the conversation, since in general , The entrepreneur considers that research in universities or state laboratories is a public service that does not need to be paid.

It is clear that entrepreneurs will have perfectly acceptable reasons to do so. But the question is, if we will go somewhere.

In recent years the vision of the country that is imposing is a vision of services and the few industries that are established are no more than places of production, using technologies already established and bought abroad. Such an industry can never have the same economic impact as another that is based on its own technologies and products.

I believe that it is necessary to move in this direction, and a first step would be to encourage contacts, even if initially unproductive, between researchers and industries. And I can assure you one thing: researchers today are extremely interested in what the results of what they do can bring some benefit to the country's economy.

The image of the investigator closed in his laboratory, full of cobwebs and alienation to the outside is totally outdated.

It is therefore essential for the development of biotechnology in Portugal to foster direct contact between investors, allowing the ideas of each part to be aired with openness and evaluating the advice and recommendations that each has to present.

This will gradually create a climate of confidence that will allow the achievements to begin to appear, which will indirectly result in a doubling of the interest of researchers and a greater number of investment opportunities in the future.

- Júlio Maggiolly Novais
Prof. Professor at Instituto Superior Técnico
Chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Research in Biotechnology