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From the Lab to the Market: How to Improve Deep Tech Innovation in Latin America

To truly drive innovation in Latin America, it is crucial to establish long-term, sustainable strategies that integrate governments, research institutions, and the private sector, as exemplified by successful programs like the U.S. National Science Foundation's I-Corps.


Biotechnology and healthcare face unique challenges in the global innovation landscape - especially in Latin America - to turn scientific ideas into market solutions. In the words of Eugenio Marin, President of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation for Science, "The lack of incentives in Latin America's research systems is causing us to lag behind other countries."

A recent discussion among Latin American experts addressed the issues of boosting innovation in healthcare. The first of these is the need for support and collaboration between governments, research institutions, and the private sector, as is the case with the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program. Since 2011, the program has fostered scientific entrepreneurship and encouraged researchers to consider the practical application of their research. As of 2023, the foundation had helped launch more than 1,500 startups and generated more than $5.6 billion in revenue.

Unfortunately, implementing similar programs in Latin America involves challenges. For example, in Mexico, initially successful efforts faded after changes in government, frustrating the potential for innovation and integration between science and industry. Argentine Matías Peire, president of GRIDX, said, "We are at a critical point where science and innovation must intertwine to create true solutions with impact. The lack of continuity in innovation programs is an obstacle that kills progress in developing new technologies."

Another factor is the development and sustainability of innovation ecosystems, which requires the effective integration of universities, hospitals, biotherapeutics, and research centers.

Inter-institutional collaboration enhances the development of prototypes and clinical trials, as has happened on the U.S.-Mexico border. Marín says, "NSF's I-Corps program shows how integrating business start-ups with academic research can transform innovation." Institutions such as Mexico's National Institute of Nutrition, one of the top 50 in the world, play a crucial role; their collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to obtain approvals shows the importance of existing infrastructure in facilitating innovation.

However, a 2023 study by The Association of Latin American and Caribbean Universities for Integration (AUALCPI) revealed that only 30% of regional university collaborative programs have continuity after five years, underscoring the need for long-term sustainable strategies to strengthen the innovation ecosystem.

One of the most persistent challenges is to obtain adequate and patient funding, as health projects require large amounts of capital and an extended time horizon to be developed and tested effectively.

Mexico's Fondo de Innovación Tecnológica (FIT) operated until 2018 and financed up to $40 million annually in projects, exemplifying how public funds can drive innovation in health; in Chile, the more stable Fondo de Innovación para la Competitividad (FIC) has financed more than $80 million in innovation projects. This demonstrates the need for funding that does not depend on administrative changes and provides the necessary patient capital. Peire said, "Support for entrepreneurs should not be limited to big pharma; startups also need a robust support ecosystem."

Another factor mentioned is the inconsistency in researcher evaluation systems. In Mexico, patent recognition and company creation are valid criteria for academic success. Still, according to a 2023 report by the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT), only 20% of researchers in Mexico consider technology transfer as part of their professional evaluation, compared to 65% in the U.S. Brazil; on the other hand, offers funds and support for technology transfer and commercialization of scientific innovations. Marin says, "Evaluating researchers only by their publications without considering patents or the creation of companies discourages innovation."

Finally, access to existing infrastructure and efficiency in resource use are essential for developing healthcare startups. A Stanford University study found that 55% of biotech startups with access to shared infrastructure made it through the early stages of development, compared to only 25% of those without such access. In addition, ongoing monitoring is critical to providing the proper support at each stage of startup development.

Latin America has the opportunity to reform public policies to facilitate startups from academia and implement more robust incentive programs that consider innovation and entrepreneurship as critical success criteria. The region can harness its potential and contribute to advancing global health by fostering a sustainable innovation ecosystem. The key lies in effectively integrating the relevant actors in the innovation ecosystem.

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Pedro LOPEZ SELA Twitter

Pedro helps individuals & organisations thrive. He simplifies complexity, identifies inefficiencies, connects dots & imagines ideas that drive meaningful outcomes.