The StartUp Ecosystem in Brazil

January 21st, 2016

by Juliana Saldanha, Marketing Director & Vinicius Roman, Project Director

@Techmall S.A.

Before we delve into our discussion in this post, it is important to understand what is an ecosystem. In biology, ecosystem is defined as a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. In our case, we will discuss the Brazilian ecosystem of startups as a complex system, composed of a set of actors (entrepreneurs, startups, universities, government, incubators, accelerators, etc.) with specific roles and motivations, which interact to develop innovation and high value-added businesses. According to the survey “Fostering the Startup and Innovation Ecosystem“, successful ecosystems must have five main ingredients to leverage the success of startups: (i) talent, through the development of human capital to build and maintain a working force able to build businesses and innovate; (ii) density, since by increasing the density of thinkers and talented entrepreneurs, it is possible to dramatically increase the potential for successful ventures; (iii) culture, highlighting entrepreneurs as role models, accepting failure as part of the process of learning and teaching entrepreneurial skills; (iv) capital, both for beginners and for those who need to scale, noting the fact that intelligent capital really makes a difference to the business and (v) a stable regulatory environment, predictable and supporting both the entrepreneurs and investors. In line with this context, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines six categories that influence the performance of entrepreneurial ecosystems. Analyzing these six categories in relation to the Brazilian ecosystem, Arruda et al. (2015) come to interesting conclusions. First, the regulatory framework should ease the bureaucratic barriers to the development of new business, especially when we talk about startups, since the dynamism to speed up this type of business and the processes that sustain its rapid growth are critical success factors. In Brazil, however, the laws are very outdated and the bureaucratic barriers are alarming. Thus, companies that break the traditional patterns providing products or services with innovative business models require many efforts to prosper. A recent case is of the startup Shippify  who received a Post Office statement to terminate their activities. In addition, the labor market is extremely protective and rarely flexible and entrepreneurs face many difficulties to open their businesses, and the shutdown process is very laborious. With regard to market conditions, despite the adverse moment that the country is right now, we can still have a relatively optimistic view regarding the possibility of attracting new business and technology. Companies that develop innovations abroad have great interest in Brazil because of a determining factor: the size of the country’s market. In addition, the number of startups has grown significantly  (18.5% in just six months), showing that this movement tends to go against the crisis. In the case of access to finance, in Brazil there has been a gap between the initial capital, funded mostly by the government, and venture capital funds, which operate with greater emphasis in the later stages of business development. Despite the supply of capital in Brazil, there is still uncertainty among investors to invest in fledgling businesses with high risk. Moreover, considering the current level and the country’s interest rate, conservative investments gain strength against investing in startups. In this context, Silvio Meira  highlights that Brazil has created a startup industry without creating a venture capital one, resulting in a chaotic environment (for more information read the article at the Brazilian Newspaper “Folha de Sao Paulo“). Considering the category creation and diffusion of knowledge there has been an intense generation of knowledge, but with a shy application on the market. The science in Brazil still depending largely on public money (more than 45%) and researchers are, mostly at universities. Regarding entrepreneurship, the OECD highlights two elements: (i) the presence of focused education for entrepreneurship and (ii) migration able to bring skilled foreign labor into the country, sharing ideas and entrepreneurial skills. Considering the first element, it appears that education focused on entrepreneurship is rare in Brazilian educational institutions, which have a greater focus on training employees and not employers. As for the second element, there is a lack of attractiveness to welcome foreigners and possibly retain them in the country, limiting the flow of knowledge according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Regarding the entrepreneurial culture, there is still a fail-resistance and, consequently, an aversion to risk, a fact that limits access to private funding for startups. To make matters worse, the short-term results by pressure can shift the focus of companies and inhibit business with high potential, but they need a longer time to perform (for example, in the healthcare field). Thus, the entrepreneur’s figure arises guided by the need, while it should be guided by opportunity. These reflections lead us to believe that it is possible to build a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem in Brazil, but many changes are needed and there are several challenges ahead. We are fighting for this to happen and we know there is no victory without sweat. We are Brazilians and never give up!

Fostering Innovation to Address Social Challenges

December 28th, 2015

Innovation has long driven advances in productivity and economic growth. While it is true that the contributions of innovation have not only been economic since innovations in industry have liberated workers from difficult and dangerous tasks through automation, it is also true that much of the thrust and focus of efforts to mobilize innovation have focused on economic objectives. However, this is changing as entrepreneurs, firms and public research actors recognize that modern economic growth must go hand in hand with societal progress. Innovation is often defined as the process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay. In order to be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need. Innovation involves deliberate application of information, imagination and initiative in deriving greater or different values from resources, and includes all processes by which new ideas are generated and converted into useful products. In business, innovation often results in ideas that are applied by the company or industry in order to further satisfy the needs and expectations of the customers. Today’s global challenges – from climate change to unemployment and poverty – are both economic and social. The recent economic crisis, which finds part of its roots in financial innovation, reminds us of the importance of mobilizing Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) not solely for generating economic benefits, but also for anticipating and responding to social problems. In this last blog post of the year 2015, I will discuss a little about why Innovation is so important no just in businesses but also to address several social challenges we have been facing these days. First, one important and new professional accomplishment for me as an Entrepreneur, Professor and Academic Researcher – I was named for an important position associated to Innovation. I was appointed as the Director of Innovation at UCB, the University I teach in Brasilia, Brazil since the Dean and the Board of the University identified this sector as an Important piece inside this Educational Institution to foster advances in Education and help students in personalized learning. This will be important, especially for students of the BEPiD Program that I am a Project Manager. Innovation is an important part of companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc, but it could be also applied to non-profit organizations. The recent news that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife just founded the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation (check this article from TechCrunch “The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative May Be More Important Than Facebook”) has shown that this could be also applied to non-profit Institutions. Why am I mentioning it? Because Educational Institutions run like non-profit organizations and this new model will impact them too.  For that reason, the way Foundations work is changing a lot  since they will have both a “charity” side and a for-profit side. The Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation is an LLC and could Invest and Partner with both Companies and non-profit Institutions creating a Model with more flexibility. Zuckerberg already donated money to the Educational System in New York State and now he and his wife want to accomplish much more. Their initiative might be more important than Facebook itself. Raising money by Academic and Government Grants for social causes and research has become old-fashioned. Billionaires and Millionaires will “donate” their fortune to Research Institutes and Non-Profits and fund whatever they want without any money from Agencies and the Government (of course the Government will still play a role, but in different ways). Why is that? A justification is that budgets of all the charitable non-profits in the world combined equals only 0.0001% of all assets invested in business through the capital markets; and most Foundations from the United States only allocate 5% of their assets each year to problem-solving. To transform education (for example, in an University such as the one I work in Brazil), feed a planet of over seven billion people, or cure chronic diseases such as cancer, traditional non-profit Institutions will only ever be a tiny piece of the global puzzle.  Why is this so important? Over the past decade, thanks to a combination of philanthropy, investment, and policy, we have seen a massive transformation in Innovation in several sectors, especially Education, worldwide. Another example of a major player in this transformation is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But I believe this is just the beginning. I am very proud to start becoming a part of such an Important position related to Innovation and will follow this new trending Model to tackle social problems. So, Innovation will kind of “drive” me next year. I will keep posting updates on the Innovation Direction at UCB in Brazil. It will be a big challenge for me in 2016!

Image Source: Huffingtonpost Technology

Brazilian Science is Going Down

October 15th, 2015

Limbo. That is indeed a strong word. But this is the word I’ve used in an Interview for the journal Nature Medicine back in October of 2011 in an Issue that was focused on my home country, Brazil (for the full article check “Brazilians Lured Back Home With Research Funding And Stability”). At that time, I was in the United States (US) working as a Researcher during a crossroad, where the US economy was recovering from the crisis and NIH amongst other funding agencies were cutting down funding for Research all over the country. I’ve seen the Research Institute I was working for cut working force from 500 to approximately 150 people. And this replicated all over the US from 2009 until last year when I came back. As the Nature Medicine Feature Article pointed out in 2011, Brazil was winning on job security and with the availability of money for new Research Projects particularly in wealthy states such as São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, where most of the state’s sales tax is funneled into the region’s biggest Federal Universities (see also the Blog Post I’ve wrote in 2011 entitled “My thoughts on Biomedicine in Brazil“). The same year, my funding in the US was ending and I had no signs of getting more money to survive and do the cancer research I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. Well, after 4 years of that Interview to Nature Medicine, and back in Brazil things changed a lot. In the US, the research system is still struggling, but the economy is recovering, slowly but surely. Back in Brazil, where in 2011 the country was booming with investments and funding pouring out, together with stable jobs, the economy is going downhill in 2015. I am not an economist and don’t even know a lot about politics, but the situation in my home country is bad. Scientists are worried since not even the electricity bill is being paid in the top Federal Universities, where usually science is of good quality. As the Science Magazine pointed out in a recent article, the fiscal crisis has Brazilian scientists scrambling (for the complete article check “Fiscal Crisis Has Brazilian Scientists Scrambling”). Top Brazilian Scientists with approved budgets to finance their science and research are paralyzed and sometimes paying the bills from their own pocket. That is what Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel mentioned in the Science Magazine Interview and I can tell from my own experience that this is true. Battling a slumping economy and debt, Brazil’s Federal Government has taken an ax to spending, and it isn’t sparing science. To make things worse, the fluctuation of the ratio between the Brazilian currency Real and the Dollar is now outrageous, and since most reagents and equipment are imported, scientists here have problems making ends meet and paying the bills. This month, Nature Magazine featured in the News Section an article pointing out the problems in Brazil that are impacting in Science. Dr Octavio Franco, a famous Brazilian biochemist and researcher (we work in the same Program and Institution now at the capital of Brazil, Brasilia) pointed out that we were starting to do good quality science and then the crisis crashed the economy hitting hard the scientific community (see more at “Brazilian Science Paralyzed By Economic Slump”). He also pointed out that the whole Brazilian Scientific Ecosystem is in jeopardy since the economic packages and budget for the Funding Agencies have not been approved and for the ones that were approved the money never got to the bank. State budgets that are an increasingly important source of science funding in Brazil felt the pinch. Most states’ research funds come from a constitutionally mandated percentage of state revenues, which together amount to billions of Reais (the Brazilian Currency) each year. With the economy slowing down and the current political crisis, things are going downhill. On the words of Dr Franco, “2015 has been a big mess”. I came back to Brazil in the end of last year with hope and years of training at two top Universities in the US (Harvard and Northwestern Universities) and had trouble to find a job as a Professor and Researcher. Now, research is the second option for several scientists. But, Brazilians are strong and creative. Entrepreneurship is flourishing in Brazil and the current economic crisis and job insecurity with unemployment increasing creates an environment for Ideas and Start Ups. I am trying hard in both sectors  - Academia and Start Ups (this is a subject for another Blog Post…). As for the Brazilian Science, the Government is trying to find new sources of funding, especially loans from the Inter-American Development Bank to help researchers through the crisis, but Brazilian officials and lawmakers have yet to approve the deals. I think the word “Limbo” applies to the whole scientific community in Brazil right now. That is how it feels everywhere I go around here. As I mentioned in the Interview for Nature Medicine in 2011, I did came back to Brazil, but you never know. Things are very nebulous for scientists here. For now, I am hanging on in Brazil, but we will see what the tide brings next year…

Science matters! and why you should help…

September 27th, 2015

Science is fundamental and ubiquitous. It underpins a multitude of different disciplines including Engineering, Medicine, Environmental Studies and Agriculture. The impact of Science is felt almost everywhere. Science affects our lives in numerous ways as it underlies many of the life-improving advancements mankind has made and virtually all of the technologies we take for granted in our daily lives. Given the pervasiveness of Science and its potential to impact us so greatly, it is important that everyone in a Society and in the World have at least a basic understanding of Science, its strengths, and its limitations. The bottom line is that Science really matters! Some time in the next days you will pick up a Newspaper and see headlines such as “Major Advance in Stem Cell Research” or “New Cancer Drug Saves Lives”. Indeed, the impact of basic and translational science is empiric. But, when some new technology is released and reaches the masses or someone in our family gets sick with a disease we try to get as much information about that specific subject as we can. Important to know is the fact that to get to a Successful discovery or new technology takes time. It demands lots of people working in that problem and tons of money. And who pays the bill? Well, taxpayers have part of their money allocated to academic science and there are some Foundations and Private Companies supporting research. However, the bulk of the money invested comes from the Government (State and Federal Tax). So, society needs to understand where this tax money is being invested. Unfortunately, for now, there are no direct ways for general people to understand about research going on in Academic Centers and how they could be applied. Why I think you should care? I think mainly because it affects everybody. Science and Innovation are in the foundations of developed countries; they depend on it. Academic research is suffering several setbacks with cuts in spending from Governmental agencies not just in the USA. In Brazil, the economic crisis is affecting research deeply. The average citizen needs to comprehend and understand the basics of the scientific world and we still do not have tools to do that. However, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing appeared as an interesting way to help funding science. In this model, anyone can invest in Scientific Projects with potential. Ph.D. Students, Post-Doctoral Fellows and Principal Investigators see this way of funding getting some momentum now that the government has cut funding resources. I believe that this model will get better and people in general will understand more what we as scientists do. Science really matters, not just for you and for me, but for a whole nation. So engage, read more, understand what a scientist do and how the research project being developed by specific researchers can (or could) impact your life or society in general. We need your help right now! (Image Source: The NY Times Magazine)

Innovation and the Western Business Model

August 2nd, 2015

Adapted from a Post by Arthur Gogatz from the World Innovation Team

The Western Business Model (WBM) has been used for centuries. It describes the way the world traditionally does business. The foundation of the WBM is that business is war. Anything you buy helps someone and equally hurts someone else. If you buy products from Company A, it’s good for that company, for the owners and their employees and families, but it’s bad for all their competitors and for the employees and families of those competitor firms. A few years ago I visited the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA. It was the first day of classes for their MBA Program and on the desk of each student was a book, which the school was giving them. It was the first one they were going to read. The title of the book was “The Art of War”, which is a book written centuries ago by Sun Tzu, a General in China. It’s about warfare strategies. Since business is war, the successful firm traditionally resembles the successful military unit in structure. One of the basic principles business takes from the military is: individual employees (including the managers) and individual customers are not important as individuals. Traditionally in warfare the individual soldier was not held to be important. Men were in fact called upon to sacrifice their lives for the preservation of the nation and usually the country with the largest army won the battle and the war. What was essential was to win the battle. Casualties were expected. In business, no individual employee is crucial to the firm’s success, not even the CEO. This is because in the army if an officer is killed, the battle continues and other soldiers step up and take command. Two classic examples in business are Steve Jobs of Apple and Howard Schultz of Starbucks. Schultz worked for Starbucks, when it was only a retailer of whole bean coffee. Schultz urged them to open coffee bars, which at that time didn’t exist. When the management of Starbucks declined, Schultz quit and opened his own chain of coffee bars, and named them “il giornale”. After success, he returned to purchase Starbucks, mainly because he recognized that “Starbucks” is one of the best names ever, (in English) for a company. Jobs started Apple and built it into a successful company. Eventually both Jobs and Schultz ran afoul of their boards of directors and were booted out of their own companies. Under the WBM no one individual is more important than the firm. In ironic twists both Jobs and Schultz later returned to take command at the same companies which dumped them. The military advises soldiers not to get too close to others in their unit, because you may have to watch them die. This is especially true for officers, who need to send men into battle. The WBM stresses not to be friends with your colleagues, because if they leave the firm, they’ll probably wind up at the competition. Yesterday that colleague was your friend, but tomorrow they could well become your enemy. Colleagues may get sick or even fired but the firm must go on. Rules, regulations, orders, obedience, uniforms, titles, chain of command. That’s the military but it’s also a firm. Flow charts, business attire, tell the boss what he wants to hear, office culture, titles, it’s much the same. Why is the direction of a firm always located on the top floor of a building? Does it help the managers to be up there? Are they able to see things more clearly by being physically above their lower ranking colleagues? With smartphones, laptops, tablets, and apps that let us teleconference and instantly communicate, the average businessperson today can work anywhere, including remotely at home. Why then do most firms still demand that employees use a sick day or a personal day if they are going to be away from the office? “If you’re not here, where I can see you, I assume you’re not working” is the prevailing way of thinking.  It might be tradition, but it’s also a lack of trust, and trust is the most important word in any relationship. Companies today continue to try to control everything within their reach, but when you teach people creativity the first and most important thing you do is try to get them to stop trying to control everything. The desire to control everything kills your creativity because it reduces the size of your world to a size you can cope with, (handle) and unfortunately that’s a very small, limited world. Unfortunately, the Western Business Model opposes Innovation. In order to make people in a firm more creative you’ve got to weaken the grip of the WBM. Any firm, which emphasizes control will never innovate. The only way to teach people to be highly creative, (regain the full and vibrant creativity they had as children) is by getting them to open up rather than by encouraging them to build defenses, by getting them to take risks rather than rejecting new things and people, and by getting them to stop trying to control everything and everyone. Systems, rules, procedures, business chic, titles, time clocks, all come from the Western Business Model which is based upon a progressively outdated military system.

Data-ism in the Information Era

June 25th, 2015

I just finished reading the book “Data-ism” by Steve Lohr (check this talk the author gave about the book) and it really changed how I view big data and its impact. In general, the concept of data-ism is useful in the business world, where many companies may not have gone much further than a big data approach to helping them aggregate or mine copious amounts of data for different applications and business processes. People say we never had so much information on people and things. New cloud hosting solutions and other sophisticated data systems, especially software, have also led to the rise of data skeptics, who push back against the idea that good data handling can provide infinite results without other types of planning. Big data refers to a process that is used when traditional data mining and handling techniques cannot uncover the insights and meaning of the underlying data. Data that is unstructured, time sensitive or simply very large cannot be processed by relational database engines or by one person. This type of data requires a different processing approach called big data analytics, which uses massive parallelism on readily available hardware. Quite simply, big data reflects the changing world we live in. The more things change, the more the changes are captured and recorded as data; mainly personal information. For example, where we bought our new shoes, how much we spent in credit cards, where we are in real time, etc. Take weather as an example. For a weather forecaster, the amount of data collected around the world about local conditions is substantial, but sometimes wrong. Weather forecast relies on statistics. Logically, it would make sense that local environments dictate regional effects and regional effects dictate global effects, but it could well be the other way around. One way or another, this weather data reflects the attributes of big data, where real-time processing is needed for a massive amount of data, and where the large number of inputs can be machine generated, personal observations or outside forces like sun spots or magnetism. However, getting to that Big Data payoff is proving a difficult challenge for many organizations. Big Data is often voluminous and tends to rapidly change and morph, making it challenging to get a handle on and difficult to access. The majority of tools available to work with Big Data are complex and hard to use, and most enterprises don’t have the in-house expertise to perform the required data analysis and manipulation to draw out the answers that the business is seeking. New technologies tend to spawn utopian and dystopian thinking in equal measure. For all his caveats about the unproven promise of big data, the book author Steve Lohr is clearly one of the enthusiasts. He has been captured by data-ism, evincing open admiration for those on its leading edge. Perhaps for this reason, he focuses more on the benign “stumbles” of big data than on the serious ones: the humorous mistakes of intelligent IBM’s artificially computer system, Watson, as it trained to compete on the game show “Jeopardy!” (check the article “In ‘Data-ism’ Steve Lohr gives his take on how Big Data will shape our future” from The Washington Post). Controversial or not, data-ism is affecting both Science and Technology since these areas are becoming more and more data-driven. One example is how we can sequence genomes and get other clinical information from patients using sensors. The collection of 100,000 data points per second for several variables in a patient, for example, needs software and big data analytics tools to make sense of the data. Science that is dependent on single individuals generating and interpreting the information is endangered. We are living the Data-driven scientific era. Hypothesis-driven science will disappear, and Institutions and Enterprises will dispute Data Scientists. Just as a glimpse on the impact of data, in the last decade we already generated more information than in all the rest of the humankind history combined. Be prepared for a future full of information! The challenge will always be making sense of too much data, especially in science… Well, but science was always challenging, wasn’t it?

 

A Tale of a Scientist turned into Entrepreneur

May 14th, 2015

I once read that entrepreneurship is a combination of science and art. In some ways this is true. The main principle to be a Scientist is to create a hypothesis (or several) based on what is already described and somehow change the “status quo” and/or “invent” something new that will become a Thesis. In science, the final product, in general, is the scientific publication. In fact, that could become an Intellectual Property (IP) if the discovery has an application in the market (sometimes even not having a direct application, researchers patent specific methods and discoveries just to be “protected”; academia is highly competitive). Starting a company has some parallels to a Scientific Project: 1) you need lots of energy, creativity and knowledge; 2) Using this knowledge you need to ask questions; 3) You have to “create” something new that needs to be impactful (a new hypothesis, for example); 4) Based on the “creation” you need to test that hypothesis; 5) The hypothesis needs to be experimented (a new product in the market for example) and 6) a review of the data collected and a conclusion needs to be “drawn”. The same rules and principles could be applied in both science and to start a company (for more information check “The Scientific Method for Entrepreneurs: 6 Steps to Long-Term Success”). In some cases, you even need to pivot when the scientific project and your hypothesis proves to be wrong. Well, in some ways, this is my story – a scientist turned into entrepreneur. Not an easy task and I am still on it. I started my career with dreams of becoming famous and even winning a Nobel Prize (so naive at that time…). I did a Bachelor’s in Biology with a Major in Biochemistry, then a Ph.D. or Doctorate in Genetics (specifically in cancer epigenetics) and then moved to the United States to do a Post-Doctoral training (if you did not read my Intro in this Blog I am from Brazil and lived in the United States for 10 years). In summary, my academic professional life was: Bachelor’s Degree, check; Ph.D. in one of the best places in Brazil, check; Post-Doctoral training in Boston at Harvard University, check. After that, I’ve moved to Chicago and did a second Post-Doctoral training. That is when things started to change and the fairy tale became more like a nightmare. Unfortunately, when doing my second Post-Doctoral training at Northwester University the economic crisis hit the United States (around 2008-2009) and funds for research got slim. In parallel, to help cope with my deep frustration with the scientific system and how it became broken (for more information on how the scientific system is broken check my blog post “Science is Broken: How, Why and When?”), I co-founded a company and got involved in several company Incubators, Accelerators, Mentoring, etc, entering a new world that was totally different from the Academic System I was used to. What have I learned transitioning from academia to starting a company? I’ve learned that Innovation is the key connection between Science and Entrepreneurship, BUT this is applied differently in both fields. Why is that? Can we try to innovate academically and privately with similar outcomes? It depends. Academia expects that the ideas you generate and test with hypothesis to get public with scientific publications of articles (sometimes with patents) and startups (and the private sector in general) expect that the ideas that become “products” have legal protection before getting out to the public (companies are for profit in a world of capitalism). In my case, I continue to navigate both worlds since they have parallels. The bottom line is that it is possible to develop something impactful in Academia and transform that in a successful company. In doing that you can disrupt a market or create a new market. For example, Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, envisioned a way to reinvent old-fashioned phlebotomy and, in the process, usher in an era of comprehensive superfast diagnosis and preventive medicine. That was a decade ago, when Holmes dropped out of Stanford University and founded Theranos with her tuition money (check the article about this history here “This Woman Invented a Way to Run 30 Lab Tests on Only One Drop of Blood”). Her company now is worth U$ 9 Billion Dollars and she innovated creating new and cheaper ways of doing blood tests. This is an example of success. I am still trying to find the key to success applying the academic knowledge into entrepreneurship. Maybe one day I will find my way. Who knows?

The Science of Networks

March 30th, 2015

Networks are everywhere. From the Internet to networks in economics, networks of disease transmission, etc, the imagery of the network pervades our modern culture. What exactly do we mean by a network? What different kinds of networks are there? And how does their presence affect the way that events happen? In the past few years, a diverse group of scientists and researchers, including mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, sociologists, and biologists, have been actively pursuing these questions and building in the process the new research field of network theory, or the “science of networks”. The study of networks has had a long history in mathematics and natural sciences. Briefly, in 1736, the great mathematician Leonard Euler became interested in a mathematical riddle called the Königsberg Bridge Problem. The city of Königsberg was built on the banks of the Pregel River in what was then known as Prussia, and on two islands that lie in midstream. A popular brain-teaser of the time asked, “Does there exist any single path that crosses all seven bridges exactly once each?” Legend has it that the people of Königsberg spent many fruitless hours trying to find such a path before Euler proved the impossibility of its existence. In the 1780s, Euler invented network theory and for most of the last two hundred years, network theory remained a form of abstract mathematics. A network is made up of nodes and links and mathematicians assumed the links between the nodes were randomly distributed. If there exist, let’s say, 10 nodes and 50 links, they assumed the distribution would be random and each node would get, on average, five links. For years, mathematicians explored the properties of these random-distribution networks. Nowadays, we see the Internet as a source of networks: of people, of groups, of hashtags at Twitter, of social clusters at Facebook, etc. The Internet was originally designed by the American Military to be randomly distributed with no pattern in order to create a communications network that could survive an attack. In the 1990s, physicists began studying the internet because it was an example of a network in which all the nodes and links could be tracked. Computer scientists soon realized that the Web was not randomly distributed. Maps of the web showed that some nodes had huge numbers of links, while most nodes had only a few links. In biomedicine, the impacts of networks have just recently been tackled. In my article in 2013, on the cover of the journal Drug Discovery Today, I wrote that “Social networks can be seen as a nonlinear superposition of a multitude of complex connections between people where the nodes represent individuals and the links between them capture a variety of different social interactions. In addition, “…the emergence of different types of social networks has fostered connections between individuals, thus facilitating data exchange in a variety of fields.” (see my review article “Social networks, web-based tools and diseases: implications for biomedical research”). Networks of people and how to make sense of it are the hot wave today. A social network is a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called “nodes”, which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige (for more information check “Social Network Analysis – Theory and Applications”). One can identify a person and the connections a specific person has, how influential he or she is and what social interactions a person has. In addition, the science of networks has been applied for businesses since companies that embed themselves into the social network of an industry by creating lots of contacts (links or nodes of the network) to other companies, suppliers, industry magazines, customers, government, and workers will have a tendency to grow, because the node with the most links will get more links. In life sciences, the science of networks transforms data collection into actionable information that will improve individual and population health, deliver effective therapies and, consequently, reduce the cost of healthcare. These novel tools might also have a direct impact in personalized medicine programs, since the adoption of new products by health care professionals in life sciences and peer-to-peer learning could be improved using social networks (see more at my article “The Impact of Online Networks and Big Data in Life Sciences”). Thus, the science of networks could also help the industry gain insights into how people use and react to pharmaceuticals and medical devices; and how they benefit from them. Such accumulation of information could be applied into the product development process as a “lean” process to test new products. The impact of the science of networks and social networking are immensurable in the scientific and biomedical communities. It is just the beginning for this area of research and I believe that there is a lot more to come. Welcome to the Networking Era!

Brazil, Soccer & Science

February 6th, 2015

Brazil is changing. Once the soccer country with five World Cup Trophies, it lost to Germany in the last World Cup in 2014 and did not impress the world like it used to. Soccer is changing. European countries, especially Germany, have been training, building infrastructure and a lower base of young professionals that was able to win big last year. Following this trend, science is also changing. Brazil won the first “big league” prize in a scientific field – the Brazilian Artur Avila won the Fields Medal in Math in 2014. This International Prize is comparable to the Nobel Prize, but in this case for Mathematics. Brazil never won a Nobel Prize in Science or in any field. We are a developing country that plays soccer well. But, not anymore… In this blog post I will discuss how Brazilian Soccer and Science have been changing. I will also discuss examples of scientists that have International recognition and do research in Brazil or in the United States. Brazil is still a poor country with several problems; bureaucracy, corruption, lack of investments, violence and poor education. But, as a Brazilian, I’ve learned one thing after living abroad for a decade: we are very creative people. We can solve problems in a different way. There is also an expression for this in portuguese: “jeitinho brasileiro”. Last year Brazil lost the biggest tournament and a source of hope in a country full of maladies: the Soccer World Cup. Brazil lost in the semi-finals to Germany in the most outrageous game score ever: 7×1. Who would imagine that? Is Brazil loosing the “jeitinho brasileiro” in Soccer? The answer is yes. What makes a country good at soccer? (for more read “The Score” article about this subject). The answer is that there is no formula or rule. If you can’t study or be educated you just go and play soccer with your friends in your neighborhood. It is simple like this. But that is somehow changing. The country has changed. Artur Avila showed last year, the same year we’ve lost the World Cup in the worst manner ever, that we can win big in Science (for more check the Fields Medal Website: “A Brazilian Wunderkind Who Calms Chaos”). He won the most prestigious International Prize in Math studying the Chaos Theory. This indicates a trend: Brazil is getting better at science and loosing the soccer skills. This can’t be quantified right now, it is just my “very” subjective observation. In my last blog post I have criticized science in general and how the system is broken (for more see “Science is Broken”). And it is. But, there are some things happening here and there. Artur Avila is an example of a scientist living in Brazil (he travels to Paris, France every month to lecture and do projects in collaboration in Europe but resides in Brazil). Another example is the Brazilian Scientist living in the United States Miguel Nicolelis. He has everything to do with soccer. His research provided the resources necessary to build a machine-man interface that was used in the World Cup’s first game (see the TED Talk by Miguel Nicolelis: “Brain-to-Brain Communication has arrived”). He is a Professor at Duke University and is building a Neuroscience Program and Institute at the city Natal in Brazil. He built a Mind-controlled robotic suit that a paralyzed patient was wearing to do the first kick in the opening game of the World Cup. That is an example of a scientist from Brazil living abroad that is researching amazing things in the field of neuroscience. He was able to unite the passion of Brazil, soccer, to science (for more information check “World Cup to Debut Mind-Controlled Robotic Suit”). Thus, things have been changing in the soccer country. Maybe that is a good sign: we are getting better in science and worse in soccer. Using our minds, not just our legs to play. I believe this is just a tendency, but it is definitely a big change for Brazil. Brazil is doing science better for sure. The best part is that with less and less resources. But we, Brazilians, are creative. We always find ways to make things work.

Science is Broken: How, Why and When?

November 17th, 2014

The title of this blog post is something that has been discussed a lot in the last months. The scientific system is broken everywhere and there is no easy solution to fix it. Well, three years ago, in 2011, I wrote a blog post after an Interview to the scientific journal Nature Medicine (see my interview here “Brazilians lured back home with research funding and stability”) about differences on how to do science in the United States and Brazil. At that time, I was in a limbo and stayed there until now. (For my entire blog post check out “My thoughts on Biomedicine in Brazil”). At that time, things were already shaky and federal funding was collapsing with cuts from budgets and the economic crisis in the United States. Brazil had a good economic prognosis and growth. Guess what? I am back to Brazil after working as a Post-Doc, Research Scientist, etc, etc in the United States. I am back not because things in Brazil are or have been better in Academia or Science, because they are not. I am back because the United States is in a huge scientific crisis. A recent article in the Boston Globe discusses (check the entire article entitled “Glut of postdoc researchers stirs quiet crisis in science”) that the lives of humble biomedical postdoctoral researchers was never easy mainly because of the obscurity in a low-paying scientific apprenticeship that can stretch more than a decade (exactly the timeframe I spent training in the United States). The long hours of work are not worth it for the expected reward and the chance to launch an independent laboratory and do science that could expand human understanding of biology and disease is slim nowadays. There is a bulk of very well and smart post-docs with Ph.D.s in Biomedical Science that are getting stuck in the eternity of a “Post-Doctoral Fellow”. And if the person is lucky to have funds from the government, the laboratory they work or from family donations they can do science. If they do not have it, they are in a limbo. In my case, I am very thankful for the Maeve McNicholas Family that lost a daughter with a brain tumor and have donated resources and money for 7 years to maintain my research in Chicago (for more on the Maeve McNicholas Memorial Foundation and also to donate click here). Matt and Denise McNicholas are the most wonderful people I ever met. From a very sad and burdening fact – loosing a child – they created a Foundation under their child’s name and also constructed a park with Maeve’s name. This makes a big difference now that federal funding is getting slim (check this NPR piece on the situation right now “Top Scientists Suggest A Few Fixes For Medical Funding Crisis”). Foundations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates, The Michael J Fox, and others can and will make the difference right now. I am not sad because I left the United States and will start my career from zero in Brazil. I am just frustrated for a generation of young investigators that cannot share their ideas in a totally closed system from the Medieval times. Science is broken and needs a fix right now! I also created a group on Facebook named “Science is Broken” to help reshape this broken system. Things are so bad right now that a group of scientists even wrote an article in PNAS (a well respect journal from the United States Academy of Science) giving suggestions for fixing the broken scientific system since they see lots of bright people leaving science to pursue other careers. A whole generation of very bright and smart people will choose not to go in a scientific and academic career because all they hear is that scientists, especially Post-Docs, are struggling and will struggle for a long time. The authors of the PNAS piece (for the entire article check out “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws”) discuss that the long-held but erroneous assumption of never-ending rapid growth in biomedical science has created an unsustainable hypercompetitive system that is discouraging even the most outstanding prospective students from entering our scientific profession and making it difficult for seasoned investigators to produce their best work. The authors suggest that all the scientists; especially the ones with well-established laboratories, should rethink fundamental features of the whole biomedical research ecosystem. Specific suggestions are: 1) Planning for predictable and stable funding on science and 2) Bringing the biomedical enterprise in sustainable equilibrium by educating graduate students early on, by broadening the career path for young scientists, by changing the way post-doctoral fellows are trained and using more staff scientists. They also suggest a new way of evaluating the performance for scientific accomplishments of well-established researchers with more teaching and web-based tools. In addition, they question that the whole grant submission and analysis system needs to be changed. I believe the situation is really bad and complex. Since Medieval times science is done the same way. We need re-evaluations and changes that will impact now and not for future generations of researchers. The way things are going on in Academia, there will not be a next generation. People have lives, families and hobbies. Science is a devotion like religion for some, but things are changing. We, and by we I say all young scientists, have bills to pay and a whole life in front of us. We deserve respect and better paychecks! We deserve better opportunities! Science is broken but I will not follow this path. I am back in Brazil and will start a new life. Thank you America for these ten years of training at Harvard and Northwestern Universities and for not offering me a decent academic job in your land. I still have hope that this is not a goodbye forever. Changes are needed and time will tell if I will be back to the United States of America. For now, I will enjoy the weather and the summer in Brazil and fight for science here. (Photo by Toban Black)