From 9 Billion to Zero?

August 27th, 2016

We all know that the path to become an entrepreneur is a very difficult one. To build a company from the ground up, getting Investors on board, the Midia covering and all the fuzz around is like a rollercoaster. The most important part of becoming an entrepreneur is to create value, building a product and/or solution that could be applicable and used by society. Lately, we have seen a wave of hot startups, mainly in the digital and IT space, some of them with high valuations. Creating internet companies is relatively easy. All you need is a computer, IT infrastructure and a new idea and to build a new platform or a new app. In Biotechnology, the path to entrepreneurship is totally different. Biotechnology is defined as the manipulation (as through genetic engineering) of living organisms or their components to produce useful commercial products (as pest resistant crops, new bacterial strains, or novel pharmaceuticals) or simply the use of living cells, bacteria, etc., to make useful products (such as crops that insects are less likely to destroy or new kinds of medicine). Another area of biotechnology and life sciences that has grown is the diagnostic sector. The idea is to develop new tools and solutions to make disease diagnosis fast and easy. That is where the company Theranos got in. In this blog post, I will discuss how company valuation, especially in the biotech space is volatile. Elizabeth Holmes is a Stanford drop-out that created a new way of doing blood tests for various diseases using a “nano” tube so patients could avoid needles and all their hurdle. The company she created is known as Theranos and is an American privately held health-technology and medical-laboratory-services and diagnosis company based in Palo Alto, California. Theranos also developed a blood-testing device named Edison, which is basically the hardware of the company product. The company said the device uses a few drops of blood obtained via a finger-stick, rather than vials of blood obtained via traditional venipuncture, utilizing microfluidics technology. By the summer of the year 2014, its founders had raised over U$400 million dollars from several investors, valuing the company at U$9 billion. Interestingly, Elizabeth owned 50% of the company, making her a billionaire with a net worth of U$4.5 billlion dollars. The company operated for years in near-total secrecy, despite raising hundreds of millions of dollars. Holmes became a Silicon Valley celebrity, appearing in the Cover of several magazines, including Fortune, Forbes and she was a regular on the tech industry conference circuit. Her company, which claimed to perform dozens of lab tests on just a few drops of drawn blood, seemed poised to revolutionize healthcare and was talked about as a 2016 IPO candidate. Where is the big problem in all this history? How can a company claim that it has exclusive technology that will solve all the problems in diagnostic blood tests? The simple answer is that Theranos did not publish a single peer-reviewed article, it did not publish any Intellectual Property (Patents, for example) and never showed any results to the Scientific Community. It mainly worked in what we call Industrial Secrecy. Well, totally fine right? Not that easy. In the last 6 months the company lost value and credibility since the pressure to show results increased and they were not able to “deliver”. The negative midia coverage helped the company sink. Some articles were published, analyzing and comparing side-by-side Theranos’ technology with big diagnostic companies that are already well established in the market and their results were not good as expected. A company that on paper had a U$9 billion dollar valuation went down on spiral and now it is difficult to give it a “real” value. From billions to almost nothing in months. That is how it works when a company is created without true values and no transparency. What’s next for Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos? She lost the CEO position and the Investors are trying to “save” what is left. The company is being scrutinized now by the Scientific Community and by the Midia, the same one that placed her on a pedestal. Let’s wait and see what is going to happen but the outcome does not look pretty. Check this interesting Infographic/Cartoon on the company trajectory from Nine Billion Dollars to Zero.

Science, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Globally

July 25th, 2016

By Octavio L. Franco, Ph.D.

Professor and Researcher at UCB and S-Inova

In Brazil, science and research have always been associated to heavy expenses and the lack of short-term results. It is a big mistake to think that science and technological breakthroughs should not be a priority, such as education, health and safety. We just need to analyze developed countries and see the differences and benefits that technological developments could bring. Last month, the prestigious Scientific journal Nature published a nice compendium of the benefits of technological developments and science for some countries. Of course, the development in this direction comes from a well-structured partnership between the three main players that include universities, the government and companies. Each of these entities has their own culture, forces and motivations. Universities and their researchers are charged to give a response to public investment for the development of innovations, the government should notably be involved in solving the problems of his citizens and companies are always pressured by competition to bring better and more competitive products to the consumers. Thus, with multiple qualities and motivations, the combination of these three can be extremely synergistic in a very powerful way. Although this combination is extremely successful, there are difficulties so that development can occur with success. First, communication between professionals can be difficult and necessary connectors are professionals who can move the flow the information in and between different fields. Second, the combination of ideas and the implementation of them are required, since without creative dreams nothing changes, but also without execution nothing happens. Third, it is essential a high financial investment to mobilize the changes in these 3 players cited above. Financing science in Brazil is almost in its entirety made by the state and the government investments. On the other hand, there is a strong rise in countries like China, in which technological development is funded by approximately 35% of its resources by companies that require the generation of innovative products. Moreover, patents and/or trade secrets, bringing in improvements to these three players are able to protect these technological innovations, products and processes that are developed by them. In addition, the champions in this endeavor have been Israel and South Korea, consisting of nations with high technology development capability. Furthermore, small companies have been encouraged to start within the academic environment to further unite researchers and entrepreneurs, further expanding the entrepreneurship efficacy. In this aspect, the champions are the United States of America (USA), with over a thousand new startup companies founded in 2015. In the USA, there are innovation clusters where universities and companies are placed side by side in locations such as technology parks and geographic proximity brings real human and technological development. It is noteworthy that Brazil does not appear in any of these rankings and this fact shows that we are getting backwards. It’s time to take our nation to a stronger and consolidated state on science and technology. Technology has been changing man’s life since the discovery of fire and the bow and arrow. Technological development brings knowledge and knowledge brings power and better living conditions for the citizens. Nowadays, discoveries in the laboratories can really change the world, but only if these discoveries are transformed into real innovation. Science is vigilant on our side, acting wisely to solve the problems of our society. So, we need to take action now. Brazil, wake up for Science, Innovation and Entrepreneurship!

Reposted from the Article in Portuguese published at the Brazilian Newspaper “Correio do Estado”

Failure and Success go hand in hand

June 28th, 2016

Fact is that the road to Success is paved by Failure. “Failure” has come a long way from its 19th century origins as a synonym for Bankruptcy. Failure is a matter of perspective, and successful people or corporations can measure themselves against unmet goals and consider themselves failures. An example in the Biomedical field is the Mayo Clinic, world-renowned for their innovation and quality of care. Internally, they felt their Research wasn’t breaking enough new ground. So they created the “Queasy Eagle Award”, recognizing experiments and projects that were interesting and well-designed but ultimately unsuccessful. They got rid of the taboo of failure, and they exponentially grew the number of patents compared to the previous 18 months.  When the clinic recognized and valued their “near wins,” these failed experiments could become crucial steps in other, successful journeys. Think of your most recent effort that fell flat. What can it tell you? How can you use it to pivot to a new goal, or move you closer to the original? In 2000, physicist Andre Geim was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for the apparently useless exercise of levitating a frog in a powerful magnetic field. A decade later, in 2010, he and Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for isolating graphene, a one-atom-thick material that’s rapidly replacing silicone in countless applications. Lewis sees a direct connection between “the insouciance it took to levitate a frog” and the willingness to pursue the unlikely idea of isolating a two-dimensional object in three-dimensional space. Graphene was discovered during the “Friday Night Experiments” Geim and Novoselov hold at the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom. It’s lab time set aside for unfunded, and unlimited, experimentatios – scientists at play. Unfortunatelly, we incentivize Creativity and Innovation by reducing the cost of failure, by creating safe spaces and comfort zones for exploration. In my personal experience, I had lots of failure in my personal and professional life. As a scientist, frustration and failure are words I would remember on a daily basis. Today I know that approximatelly 10-20% of what a scientist does in a lab works, with a high rate on failure. This could be explained by the idea that we are always risking in the “unkown arena” – things nobody discovered yet or build a hypothesis on. Lots of hypothesis are thrown away because what we expect is not the reality. The same is true in the entrepreneuship arena: we need to take risks and we will fail for sure. It is very difficult to “get it” at the first time. That is why we all see the expression “serial entrepreneur”. This is somebody that tryed more than once to build a company and failed. At some point the process of building the company worked and then the success came. Failure and success are always hand in hand. I’ve learned a lot with all my failures as a Scientist and as a serial Entrepreneur; however one thing I can say – it is never easy to realize something dind’t work or is not working and failure is coming. In the begginning, I was always blaming myself asking – is that me? Am I that bad at what I do? Believe me, this is normal. It is not you. It is mostly because it was not the right timing. My advice is keep trying and pushing and do not quit. There are two quotes from Thomas Edson about the thin line between failure and success: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” and “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” So, my advice is if it did not work today, keep trying…

Smart and Fast Data, not just Big Data…

April 22nd, 2016

I’ve just finished reading the book “Big Data: Using SMART Big Data, Analytics and Metrics To Make Better Decisions and Improve Performance” written by Bernard Marr. This book is a must read for Data Scientists and general people interested in data analytics. It is now clear that at the end of the day, it’s not about how much data you generate (in a scientific laboratory, in healthcare, in logistics, in the financial world, etc), it’s about how well you use it. Though Big Data has been recently deemed an over-hyped term, it’s not going to go away any time soon. I believe it will be the opposite; data science will be applied to all sectors in society. Information overload is a phenomenon and challenge we face all the time now. In fact, large-scale data analytics, predictive modeling, and data visualization are increasingly crucial for companies in both high-tech and mainstream fields to survive nowadays. Big data capabilities are a need, not a want today or tomorrow. Big Data is a broad term that encompasses a variety of angles. There are complex challenges within Big Data that must be prioritized and addressed; such as “Fast Data” and “Smart Data.” “Smart Data” means information that actually makes sense. It is the difference between seeing a long list of numbers referring to weekly sales vs. identifying the peaks and troughs in sales volume over time. Algorithms turn meaningless numbers into actionable insights. Smart data is data from which signals and patterns have been extracted by intelligent algorithms. Collecting large amounts of statistics and numbers bring little benefit if there is no layer of added intelligence and expertise. By “Fast Data” I am talking about as-it-happens information enabling real-time decision-making. An advertising firm, for example, needs to know how people are talking about their clients’ brands in real-time in order to mitigate bad messages. A few minutes too late and viral messages might be uncontainable. A retail company needs to know how their latest collection is selling as soon as it is released to continue or stop selling it. Public health workers need to understand disease outbreaks in the moment so they can take action to curb the spread. One example is Google Flu Trends detecting spikes in flu searches from Google. Twitter uses the same strategy to evaluate outbreaks of infectious diseases. A bank needs to stay abreast of geo-political and socio-economic situations to make the best investment decisions using a global-macro strategy. A logistics company needs to know how a public disaster or road diversion is affecting transport infrastructure so that they can react accordingly. One of the biggest evolutions of integrating smarter data into content experiences is that it levels the playing field with larger competitors who may have more resources to burn on advertising media. Using the totality of visitors as a whole – and deriving meaning from all of their content experiences, we can deliver more relevant and contextual experiences than our competitors. And today, we can deliver those solutions in much less expensive ways than the multi-million dollar solutions that may have historically been out of our reach. Big Data is just a problem. Smart Data is a solution that changes the game of marketing, and how we deliver better solutions for customers from this point forward. According to John Bollen, the four keys to converting big data into smart data are: 1) Organize and manage resources; 2) Identify your customers and/or targets; 3) Target this specific group of people and evaluate the outcome in real-time and 4) Use data analytics to look forward and to do forecasts. In addition, we have to remember that technology doesn’t solve the problem of changing big data to smart data. It’s more about process than technology. While tools are getting better at aggregating and parsing data, it’s ultimately up to us as data scientists to connect past behavior to future wants, preferences, needs, etc. The technological advancements seen all the way back to the Industrial Revolution have been about automating a manual process, not making us smarter. The questions without answers are “what processes are in place to handle the data?”, “what governance is in place?” (in other words, who’ll make decisions that extend from the data?), and finally, “how do we operationalize the data”? Technology won’t answer these questions. First, we must have the right people in place and processes established, then we look at how technology fits in. Smart and fast data generate reliable answers; however we need the right decision makers in the end.

Image Source: Digitalroute

Zika Virus, Microcephaly and Brazil

February 14th, 2016

The first indications of a connection between Zika virus and the current outbreak of microcephaly in Brazil were picked up by the HealthMap System in Portuguese alerts on November of 2015. By Saturday, November 28th, the Ministry of Health in Brazil confirmed the connection that the increase in infants born with microcephaly could be contributed to transmission of the Zika virus in pregnant women. The link was first detected when Brazilian health authorities found traces of the Zika virus in a deceased infant born with microcephaly. And what is the Zika virus? How is it transmitted? The Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted infection related to dengue, yellow fever and West Nile virus. It is transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito bites. Although it was discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 and is common in Africa and Asia, it did not begin spreading widely in the Western Hemisphere until last year, when an outbreak occurred in Brazil. Few people have immune defenses against the virus, so it is spreading rapidly. Millions of people in tropical regions of the Americas may now have been infected. The possibility that the Zika virus causes microcephaly – unusually small heads and often damaged brains – emerged only in October, when doctors in northern Brazil noticed a surge in babies with the condition.  It may be that other factors, such as simultaneous infection with other viruses, are contributing to the rise; investigators may even find that Zika virus is not the main cause, although right now circumstantial evidence suggests that it is. It is not known how common microcephaly has become in Brazil’s outbreak (for more details check the NY Times article “Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus”). About three million babies are born in Brazil each year. Normally, about 150 cases of microcephaly are reported, and Brazil says it is investigating nearly 4,000 cases just from November of 2015 until now. Yet reported cases usually increase when people are alerted to a potential health crisis. A recent scientific report has shown strong indications that the Zika virus is present in the brain tissue combined with the clinical signs and symptoms such as microcephaly in a fetus (for more details check “Zika Virus Associated with Microcephaly”). In that case report, an expectant mother who had a febrile illness with rash at the end of the first trimester of pregnancy while she was living in Brazil was analyzed. Ultrasonography performed at 29 weeks of gestation revealed microcephaly with calcifications in the fetal brain and placenta. Microcephaly was observed, with almost complete agyria, hydrocephalus, and multifocal dystrophic calcifications in the cortex and subcortical white matter, with associated cortical displacement and mild focal inflammation. Zika was found in the fetal brain tissue using molecular biology tools, with consistent findings confirming the clinical observations. The complete genome of the Zika was recovered from the fetal brain and sequenced. Even though it is early to draw conclusions, the presence of the virus in combination with the clinical diagnosis in the babies is clear. However, cause and consequence is still very unclear. Brazil is in the epicenter of this epidemic caos, especially because the cases are increasing very fast. The government is taking measures to fight the mosquitoes that transmit the virus, but similarly to dengue fever, it has been difficult to eradicate viruses that are transmitted by this mosquito. In addition, further scientific research in Brazil and other countries are taking place to better understand the potential implications of these connections between the virus and the clinical findings. It is likely that the rapid spread of Zika virus around the globe will be a strong impetus for collaborative research on the biologic properties of the virus, particularly since the risk of neurotropic and teratogenic virus infections places a high emotional and economic burden on society. Brazilian scientists have a lot to learn and offer. Now it is time to collaborate and get more answers!

Image Source: National Geographic

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.