Professor Geciane Porto was excited when she arrived at the coffee shop that we chose to talk about innovation in Brazil. She kept her eyes on the cell phone, leaned her bag on the chair and reveal: “My team had a paper accepted by Nature.” We instinctively hugged each other. After nine months of waiting, the approval reached her mobile. “It will come out in the next issue of Nature Biotechnology,” she added, quoting one of the most influential publications in the biotechnology field.
Professor at the Faculty of Economics, Administration and Accounting of the University of São Paulo in Ribeirão Preto (FEA-RP / USP), Geciane shares the article authorship with Cristiano Gonçalves Pereira (also from USP), Virgínia Picanço e Castro and Dimas Tadeu Covas, both linked to the Blood Center of Ribeirão Preto. The paper describes a methodology for identifying technological trends, based on information obtained from international patent banks.
The goal is to expose the innovation paths, finding points of convergence between the techniques used, the cooperation agreements and the relationships between the institutions involved – sifting through the stages of development. The method generates a map to guide researchers into promising routes. “By tracing the paths, we can stimulate science in Brazil, ” says Geciane.
Pereira explains that the analysis is similar to those made to identify influence bubbles on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. By crossing information captured in a patent (technology references, company names, researchers, and institutions), it is possible to “see” the nodes of cooperation networks, understanding the trends.
To clarify the concept, the researcher quotes the six-degree theory, tested by Stanley Milgram, an American psychologist, in the 1960s. Milgram investigated the “small world phenomenon” – the principle that we are all linked by short chains of acquaintances, or “six degrees of separation”. The phenomenon is a fundamental issue in social networks. It brings the short paths, showing the nodes and links that join us to each other. Research networks present the same behavior. Technological trends follow a flow of influence much like our social behavior. “The relationship between innovation agents is determinant in the research and development field,” confirms Pereira.
Understanding the connections is a strategic factor, especially in sectors such as biotechnology, where the risks and investments required are high. “In Brazil, the economic crisis has drained research resources. Our best chance is to identify the most promising trends for investing and integrating the cooperation blocs, ” adds Geciane. In this scenario, knowing the interactions defines the success or failure of a project.
The Brazilian shyness in biotechnology intrigued Pereira. Graduated in Biology, he got his master and Ph.D. degree in oncology. In the universe of molecules and cells, he served as a researcher at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, maintained by the University of Texas. In 2014, back in Brazil, he realized that continuing his work would be a challenge. “We do not have the same resources, “he says.
The lack of investment limits research in biotechnology. It is also a barrier in transferring knowledge from academia to industry, leaving the country on the margins of global progress in the area. “I decided to study ways to foster projects,” says Pereira. In his journey, he met Geciane, who has been working for years in the study of networks and the innovation environment in Brazil. The result was a postdoctoral project, guided by Geciane and headed by Pereira. “The embryo of the article accepted by Nature,” reminds Geciane.
To test the methodology in a kind of closed circuit, Pereira and Geciane used the collaboration. At the same time, Virgínia and Covas, researchers at the Blood Center of Ribeirão Preto, were in the process of identifying technological trends for the treatment of hemophilia – disorder in blood clotting. They studied the advances in therapies for the replacement of recombinant factor VIII, which is not produced by patients with type A Hemophilia. “I already had approved funding to study therapies for the disease, but the development scenario was not clear for me,” says Virginia.
To connect knowledge to the market, she decided to apply the methodology of networks, proposed by Geciane and Pereira. The group studied the patents on factor VIII therapies to find global trends. “The method gives us a direction,” says Virginia. In this case, they figured out that the main topic is to increase the effect of drugs in the body, reducing the frequency of doses. “It’s easier to bet on a technology,” she said.
Another essential advantage of mapping is to discard outdated technologies, saving time and financial resources. “Brazilian researchers did not consult patent banks. Often they discover that the project is not innovative at the moment of patenting,” alerts Pereira.
For Geciane, by mapping technology routes and cooperation networks, it will be possible to redesign innovation policies and strategies. In companies, managers will be able to filter out the most innovative and viable projects. In the public sphere, it ensures that the investments meet Brazilian demands, such as the production of biotechnological drugs and environmental solutions. “Brazil is dependent on biotechnology drugs because we do not produce them here,” says Geciane. The result is an imbalance in the international trade and, especially, in the accounts of the Unified Health System (SUS), which needs to import a large part of the high-cost medicines.
Top Photo by Sharon Pittaway (Unsplash).