Spin-offs are a viable solution for Mexico’s economy. Several companies have splintered from UNAM’s Institute of Biotechnology (IBt), due to market innovation and the demand for their scientific advancement.
Scientific research is needed to increase the cultural heritage of society. On the other hand, technological development is necessary to solve socio economic problems and generate wealth.
Today, societies are betting on spin-offs, because—due to their innovative, scientific and/or technological nature—they represent solutions to economic, social, and environmental problems in underdeveloped countries, and they help strengthen the solid economies of developed countries.
Countries like USA, Japan, Switzerland, and more recently China and South Korea, have begun the practice of actively supporting the emergence of spin-offs. Results have been clear for these countries, with healthier and more sustainable economies.
It is true that the world population is living in a century where natural resources are depleted, food is scarce, diseases abound, urban mobility is in chaos, unemployment is widespread and the environment is a disaster. In this global context, in addition to seeking sustainability, it is crucial that younger scientists and citizens in general get involved in solving these problems.
In Mexico, institutions have long been fighting for the establishment of technology transfer offices and incubators of start-up companies born within universities. However, they have not been entirely successful. In order to ensure compliance with the objectives and goals of these bodies, offices and incubators are changing the working model and adapting more and better tools that already work in other countries, hoping for greater success in Mexico.
Now, with more available support, Mexico, as well as many Latin American countries, has a big challenge: to quickly adapt to the tendency of responding to business needs with innovative and technological developments. Otherwise, it can become a serious problem for the country’s sustainability and, on the other hand, it could represent the resurgence of a strong economy.
Furthermore, a growing interest has been perceived among young people fresh out of college that no longer seek a corporate job as their only option for employment, but who are generating their own innovative and technological ideas for solving problems, thus starting out with the dream of creating their own businesses. In addition to institutional support, many programs are emerging in Mexico to help finance, recognize and offer further business education to those who have launched a spin-off or a start-up.
The Instituto de Biotecnologia (IBt, Institute of Biotechnology) at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM, National Autonomous University of Mexico), is focusing on high quality research that is creating cutting-edge knowledge. This is the particular case of an institute totally devoted to scientific research in Cuernavaca, Morelos.
In addition to focusing on research that will generate knowledge, an initiative emerged at the institute to further focus on research that will generate knowledge for creating spin-offs. Almost two years ago a group of former and current students and faculty at the IBt formed the University Innovators Club or Spin-Off Club, which originated a project that brings together all graduate entrepreneurs that have a spin-off or who are simply interested in the subject, in order to meet each other and promote entrepreneurship. Another objective is to create a collaboration network among researchers and entrepreneurs specialized in different areas.
After several internal meetings, they concluded that, in order to have a greater impact on the community, it is necessary to actively promote technology-based entrepreneurship among the students, starting with the community at the institute and neighboring research centers.
Now, among the activities of the club, in addition to contacting other spin-offs in the country to get to know each other, the goal is to plant in the hearts of students and faculty the desire to make their innovations contribute to solving the problems of the country, through projects that catalyze more spin-offs with a social impact and enable the country’s development in various fields. As a result of this initiative, an Innovation and Technology-based Entrepreneurship Day was organized.
The club now has the active participation of ten companies (Agro&Biotecnia, Alnubio, Biopolymex, BioTesla, Corrosión y Protección, Gafisa, Grupo Quae, Laztek, Maalem and pepTherapeutics) created by researchers from the IBt, the Instituto de Física (Institute of physics) and former students. Each of these companies was created with the dream of solving one of the country’s problems.
These companies work in different areas, such as the agricultural sector, or the materials industry, pest control, medical (pharmaceutical) applications and molecular biology, advanced instrumentation in several areas, production of bio plastics, and development of new foods, among others.
Since part of the commitment to the club is to promote the entrepreneurial spirit in young people, it also organizes a Technology-based Entrepreneurship Course, provided every two semesters at the IBt, which is open to the entire community interested in business issues. The course is free of charge.
It is noteworthy that the IBt has developed projects that have received international awards for the quality of its research and innovation, which can have an economic impact for the country if such knowledge is transformed into a business idea or a spin-off.
It is not about building its own economy, but about sustaining and improving the economy of over one hundred million Mexicans who in recent times have suffered the contraction of the market for lack of cutting edge products.
The club seeks to foster a more prepared and enthusiastic generation that believes that it is possible to change the country. It wants to contribute to help Mexico advance towards an economy based on knowledge and innovation.
These ten pioneering companies are an example for the scientific community, that “creating a technology based company is totally viable.” Teaching by example has become a task for each of the members of the club. We can reach the moon if we start one step at a time.
For Harvesting High Quality Fruit
Although the need for new products that support the development of sustainable agriculture is evident, very few successful cases have come to light worldwide. Among the main factors that have limited the emergence of biological alternatives for controlling crop diseases and pests, we can cite the following:
a) The development and sale of these technologies requires multidisciplinary collaboration between phytopathologists, microbiologists, biochemists, bioprocess engineers, agronomists and managers, among others. This research and development process can take considerable time and resources, especially if you do not have a team with the necessary experience and knowledge of the technical, economic and legal requirements that a product must meet in order to achieve its commercial feasibility.
b) In general, products for biological control of pests and diseases work better when used preventively. This is especially important, since the vast majority of farmers usually take corrective action using chemicals that are toxic and rarely effective.
The Mexican Alternative
Agro&Biotecnia (A&B) is a spin-off of Institute of Biotechnology of UNAM launched by the high technology incubator at Centro Morelense de Innovación y Transferencia Tecnológica (CemiTT, Center for innovation and technology transfer of Morelos), that belongs to Consejo de Ciencia y Tecnología del Estado de Morelos (CCyTEM, Council of science and technology of the state of Morelos).
A&B researchers have an extensive experience in the development and scaling of bioprocesses, as well as professionals in the area of regulation and certification of processes and biological products. In collaboration with researchers from the Centro de Investigación en Alimentación y Desarrollo (CIAD-Culiacán, Center for food research and development), and with the support of the Conacyt-Morelos Mixed Fund, it developed and registered a bio-fungicide (Fungifree AB®) that is marketed by FMC Agroquímica de México.
Currently, the product is registered (by Sagarpa and Cofepris) for controlling fungal diseases such as anthracnose of mango, papaya, avocado and citrus fruits; powdery mildew in cucurbitaceae and solanaceae; and gray mold on berries. As a biological product, it leaves no toxic residue on the fruit surface, and it has no negative effects on health or the environment.
Fungifree AB® has a shelf life of over two years without having to be preserved by refrigeration. Use of this fungicide has allowed producers to harvest high quality fruits, free of chemical residue, which significantly increases their export possibilities. It recently received the OMRI certification that allows its use in organic agriculture.
Fungifree AB® is the first product that is marketed by a spin-off of the Institute of Biotechnology, which has been recognized with the 2014 ADIAT Award as an innovative product, in the SME category, and the 2014 Innovators of America Award, in the company category. Both are the top awards at the national and Latin American level, respectively.
A&B is focused on the scientific and technological development of high value added products and services that help control phytopathogens and promote increased productivity of agricultural crops. Among its main objectives is to be a company recognized for its capacity in the scientific and technological development of agriculture, and to become a technological partner of agricultural supplies marketing companies, interested in innovative products that help increase productivity in the agricultural sector.
At the Forefront of Technology
Laboratorio de Diagnóstico Molecular de Enfermedades Infecciosas y Hereditarias (Molecular diagnostics laboratory for infectious and hereditary diseases) was established in June of 2013. Rosaura Aparicio Fabre, who by then had finished four post-doctoral studies at different research institutions in Mexico and the USA, created it as an employment alternative.
The lab began under the tax regime of individual business with the name of TecnoGen, and a year later was constituted as Grupo Quae with four partners. The lab has two divisions: Molecular diagnostics and Agricultural technology. In the first division, the lab has state-of-the-art technology for detecting infectious and hereditary diseases through DNA, and it supports physicians with new tools for making better diagnoses. The patent was requested through the 2014 Development Program for technology-Based Enterprises sponsored by the government of the state of Guanajuato through the AGROBIOTEC Innovation Park.
The second division, the laboratory for Agricultural technology, provides tools to farmers for building protected systems and making their activities profitable and competitive. In addition, they develop bio-fertilizers, biological pest control and organic fertilizers in collaboration with the Universidad Politécnica del Estado de Morelos (Polytechnic University of the state of Morelos), where Aparicio is a researcher.
This division also produces herbal medication for diabetes, cholesterol, triglycerides and weight control, among others. It has a line of cosmetics, with anti-aging products as well as weight reducers. And it manufactures personalized formulas for patients with Alzheimer’s, stress and anxiety, among other illnesses.
Gabriel Guillén Solís and Rosaura Aparicio received an invitation to participate in UNAM’s Institute of Biotechnology Club and become entrepreneurs. “Thanks to the creation of this club we had the opportunity to externalize our intentions of creating a technology-based company. It was a state where we shared our experience as entrepreneurs,” says Gabriel Guillén, co-founder of the company.
Innovations that the start-up has developed have been made independently. The company has received support from professional managers, while the researcher can devote his time to developing the company. “I also have access to the equipment that is under the shelter of IBt, as well as to current information on the subject,” describes Guillén.
The potential of Grupo Quae lies in the fact that health strategies in Mexico and the world are now oriented towards personalized medicine. That is, to create technology-based companies that provide tools for diagnosis of hereditary and infectious diseases, individualized diets, ad hoc medication for the particular genetics of an individual, and detecting health problems before clinical manifestations set in.
Grupo Quae allocates 60% of its revenues to research and development. The goals of the company in the short term are to generate a molecular diagnostics platform to detect geno-markers related to public health problems, and providing individuals with personalized diets and treatments with herbal medicines in accordance to their personal genetics.
Another goal is to offer the public a catalog of herbal medicines to help improve the quality of life of patients with chronic diseases, as well as producing tomatoes free of agro-chemicals for individuals who are at risk for cancer.
The scope of Grupo Quae is vast and promising. The company is at the threshold of cutting-edge medical research.